Last Wednesday, the New York Times ran an article about how the Off-Broadway musical The Burnt Part Boys, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons, has achieved some unfortunate timeliness, coming as it does on the heels of the recent West Virginia mining disaster that claimed more than 25 lives. The show is coincidentally about a similar mining tragedy, this one set in the early 1960s, and the lives of the children of the men who perished. Certainly a noble subject for a show, all the more so in the light of the recent events.
But timeliness and verisimilitude don't necessarily translate into a high-quality musical. Despite the show's admirable intentions, The Burnt Part Boys falls significantly short of the mark in its execution.
The story centers around brothers Pete (Al Calderon, a genuine standout among the cast of the underrated 13) and Jake (the talented and sympathetic Charlie Brady). Their father, along with a number of other men from the town, was lost ten years prior in the aforementioned mining disaster. The "burnt part" of the title refers to the scorched section of the mine that has since been sealed off.
After the mining company decides to reopen that section of the mine, young Pete becomes incensed and takes it upon himself to rectify the situation somehow, and he and his friend Dusty (Noah Galvin) embark on a journey to the "burnt part." Jake and his friend Chet (Boston Conservatory grad Andrew Durand) discover Pete's intentions and set off in pursuit.
Now, that's certainly a situation rife with dramatic potential. Unfortunately, The Burnt Part Boys never really achieves that potential. The show's main liability is a bland, undifferentiated score, with music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen. The show's promotional materials make great hay about the show's bluegrass-influenced score. I'll give them points for seeming authenticity (I'm admittedly no bluegrass expert), but the results are idiomatic but dull. The score seems to be emulating that of Floyd Collins, but isn't anywhere near as thrilling or evocative. To my ears, every song came off sounding pretty much the same, coalescing into one incessant bluegrass lament.
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal some fairly significant plot points below.]
But I could have forgiven the uniform score if the story had developed in interesting directions. Alas, it does not. Director Joe Carlarco has created an imaginative, atmospheric production. And the book, by one Mariana Elder, does a decent job of establishing the characters and the situation, but then it really doesn't go anywhere. We learn little that's new about these characters as the story progresses. We spend most of the first act watching Charlie rather frantically try to catch up to Pete. And when he finally does, we expect a confrontation scene, but it never comes. After a few unconvincing exhortations from Pete, suddenly they're all on the road to the "burnt part" together.
And once they all get to the mine, there's a rather significant plot development that is stunningly implausible in both its setup and resolution. Pete has stolen some dynamite from Charlie's mining kit. Charlie discovers the dynamite in Pete's bag, but for some reason never confiscates it from his hot-headed younger brother. (It reminded me of the telephone in A Behanding in Spokane: If the captive couple can reach the phone to talk to the psycho's mother, why don't they use it to call for help?) Predictably, Pete blows up the mine, and everyone becomes trapped under the rubble. After a few scenes in which the show develops some genuine tension and pathos, an escape path seems to magically appear, faster than you can say deus ex machina.
Dubious plot developments notwithstanding, the show employs some interesting dramatic devices. Young Pete has become enamored of the John Wayne movie "The Alamo," which becomes both the impetus for Pete's quixotic impulse as well as his wellspring of reassurance during the trip. Michael Park, who plays the boys' deceased father, also appears in various fantasy sequences as Davy Crocket, Jim Bowie and Sam Houston, in a neat piece of father/hero parallelism. The remaining supporting players comprise the ghosts of the fallen miners, who wander in and out of the action of the show, much like the ghosts in Follies or The Secret Garden. But they also serve as stage hands in continually reconfiguring the ladders and ropes that comprise the show's modular set.
It seems churlish to dump on such a well-meaning attempt at crafting a serious, original musical. But the resulting show isn't nearly as moving or captivating as it could have been. The Burnt Part Boys is worth a look for the talented cast as the interesting production design. But as for storyline and score, the show unfortunately never really comes of age.
GRADE: C plus (A B plus for conception, but a C minus for execution. A story rife with possibility that doesn't reach its musical fruition.)