The Burnt Part Boys

During a post-performance discussion with the creative team of The Burnt Part Boys on Sunday afternoon, I congratulated the writers of this new work on creating an original musical. And indeed, they should be congratulated. So many new works - particularly on Broadway - are adapted from other material. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with adaptations - many great works of the past and present are adaptations. To wit: West Side Story and American Idiot. Generally speaking, I like originality because unlike American Idiot, the majority of adaptations seen on the boards these days seem to spring from a place of commercialism (read: The Addams Family) rather than artistic expression and passion. Anyway, I congratulated Mariana Elder (book), Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics) on having created an original musical. Unfortunately, the fruits of their labor just didn’t suit my taste.

The Burnt Part Boys concerns a young man, Jake, his little brother, Pete, and their friends, who, in 1962, are all dealing with the fall out of a fatal mining accident that happened ten year ago - an accident that left the two boys (and many other kids in the small West Virginia town) fatherless. News comes that the infamous mine is to be reopened, meaning that Jake and his buddy, who both now work in the coal mines, will be working there come Monday, and young Pete sets out to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Elder, Miller and Tysen described The Burnt Part Boys as a coming of age story, with inspiration drawn from Stand By Me. All that is true and apparent but I simply didn’t find it compelling. I have a few specific criticisms (the book seemed afraid of being too dramatic, as every time the story got serious, there was some sight gag or schticky comic relief; the lyrics could have been a little more sophisticated and poetic - though at some points I found the lyrics to be too high minded for the character’s vernacular; and the book could use some beefing up - something to help with the character development) but overall I just did not connect to any of the characters. This is why during the final scene of the show - which was clearly meant to be dramatic and to elicit some visceral response - I felt nothing. (Sorry, Mr. Karp.)

I did like the scenic design. Brian Prather gave the company four chairs and four ladders, and those eight objects wonderfully and seamlessly set the scene for nearly 30 locations. In addition, Al Calderon, an adorable young actor last seen on Broadway in Jason Robert Brown’s 13, held his own as Pete, the show’s emotional center, and Michael Park was charming and strong as a “ghost” miner and several characters of Pete’s imagination.

The new musical is currently in previews and enjoying its first fully produced staging at Playwrights Horizons, a not-for-profit theatre dedicated to new and emerging writers. (It was previously workshopped at various locations along the East coast.) While I don’t think this musical is ready for prime time just yet, it certainly has potential and I wouldn’t be surprised to find this being re-worked and re-molded at other regional theatres or in a commercial run somewhere else off-Broadway.