The Burnt Part Boys
By Mariana Elder (book), Chris Miller (music),
Touching bluegrass musical achingly portrays aftershocks of family tragedy
|Griffin Theatre presents|
|The Burnt Part Boys|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Certain subject matter – namely, coal mining – can be difficult to present in a musical without crossing over into outright parody. There’s so much material that, in the wrong hands, could be disrespected: dirty work, Southern accents, lack of formal education or refinement. Luckily. The Burnt Part Boys avoids these traps. What could have been a hokey send-up is instead a touching bluegrass musical with a Big River-esque soundtrack that rarely gets maudlin, with a story of family ties and the aftershocks of a horrible tragedy.
In 1962, a small West Virginia community is preparing to move on after a coal-mining accident that claimed the lives of a four-man crew ten years earlier. Since his father’s death in the accident, Jake (Mike Tepeli) has sacrificed his high school education to support his family as a miner, working alongside his best friend Chet (Morgan Maher) whose dad was also part of the ill-fated crew. But when the town announces plans to re-open the mine – which means more work for Jake and Chet – Jake’s younger brother Pete (Charlie Fox) sets out with his best friend Dusty (Max Zuppa) to the very place where his father lost his life. Meanwhile, the spirits of the four lost miners are constantly hovering in the background, benevolent presences informing their surviving children’s every move.
Mariana Elder’s book lovingly takes a simple story (devastated hard-luck community attempting to pick up the pieces) and infuses it with complex threads (ties between brothers, the bond among those who have lost parents, the conflict of much-needed work versus respect for the dead). Music director Nicholas Diavolo leads a quartet of viola, violin, double bass and acoustic guitar (and occasionally, the saw) for a stirring yet subtle rendition of Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen’s haunting score. None of the vocals are easy, demanding keen ears to interpret intricate harmonies, but Diavolo’s sure hand is present here as well, as the cast warbles and belts with aplomb.
As the intermission-less show wears on, however, the ensemble’s energy wanes. I detected creaks in their voices, as if they’d been rehearsing all day and were starting to show signs of wear. To be fair, the show’s subject matter and emotions are intense, the vocals and beats complicated and the cast members few. There’s a lot required of each actor and not much of a break for anyone. (Perhaps they need to pace themselves?)
Director Jonathan Berry has chosen a group that’s convincingly West Virginian in every respect, from dialect to old-before-their-time mannerisms. Only Paul Fagen feels out of place – he’s fine as Pete and Jake’s late father, but as the spirit of Pete’s many historical heroes he tends to overact and mug. Johnny Moran is sheepishly tender as a fellow miner and father, and Hannah Kahn is perfectly rough-and-tumble as his wildcat daughter and Pete’s former classmate Frances. Zuppa easily embodies the tagalong friend as Pete’s pal Dusty, and Griffin ensemble member Maher plays a gleeful good ole boy with surprising depth. The most affecting relationship, however, is that between brothers Jake and Pete – Tepeli’s sense of resignation and duty is almost tangible, and Fox is so achingly earnest and innocent, it almost hurts to look at him.
Griffin Theatre’s work is often intelligent and interesting, with a deep respect for its characters’ individual struggles – such as the perils of adolescence in last December’s Spring Awakening (my review) and the ups and downs of romantic and familial entanglements in last spring’s Kin (review). With its smart plot, beautiful score and multifaceted characters, Burnt Part Boys is an excellent choice for this thoughtful company. Rest up, cast! You’ve got an exceptional work in your hands.
The Burnt Part Boys continues through December 22nd at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $36, and are available by phone (773-975-8150) or online at TheaterWit.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at GriffinTheatre.com. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Charlie Fox (Pete); Mike Tepeli (Jake); Max Zuppa (Dusty); Morgan Maher (Chet); Hannah Kahn (Frances); Paul Fagen (Pete, Jake’s Dad, Fantasy Man, Miner); Johnny Moran (Frances’ Dad, Miner); Jared Fernley (Chet’s Dad, Miner, Additional Musician); Alex Stage (Roy Tinns, Miner, Additional Musician)
Kim Lawson (Violin), Jay Pike (Viola), Cam McIntyre (Double Bass), Nicholas Davio (Acoustic Guitar)
behind the scenes
Jonathan Berry (director), Nicholas Davio (music director), Lee Fiskness (lighting), Izumi Inaba (costumes), Chelsea Warren (set), Rick Sims (sound design), Jon Ravenscroft (stage manager), Majel Cuza (production manager); Michael Brosilow (photos)