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The Burnt Part Boys

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Andrew Durand, Charlie Brady, Al Calderon, Molly Ranson, and Noah Galvin.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Burnt Part Boys, the new musical that just opened at Playwrights Horizons (in a coproduction with the Vineyard Theatre), plumbs the fraught pasts and uncertain futures of West Virginia mining families in the early 1960s. After the Pickaway Coal Company decides to reopen a site where a dozen workers died a decade earlier, a quintet of youngsters venture up the mountain (to the isolated region known as "the Burnt Part") to make peace with themselves and the families they lost. After learning of his friend Pete's desire to destroy the mine's entrance with stolen dynamite, Dusty runs back alone and sings of his loneliness—while playing a saw.

Until this point, The Burnt Part Boys merely plays as a misguided attempt to create a thoughtful musical about a difficult subject, but one with characters and a backwoods-bluegrass score (handsomely orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin) just intriguing enough to convince you it will eventually come together. But once Dusty starts coaxing his saw to new heights of soprano caterwauling while singing of being "dead weight in Dangerville," "the bad gene in a chromosome" and "a marshmallow on a mountain," it becomes impossible to take any of what you see (or have seen) seriously.

This is, after all, supposedly a tale about economic, familial, and social disenfranchisement, how obligation meets intention in adolescence and then fashions your adulthood. It therefore requires precisely carved characters with identifiable drives, obviously torn between the lives their parents lived and the ones they want to pursue, who can believably come of age on a trip that no one involved believes is anything more than a quest for simple closure. "Dusty Plays the Saw," as that infamous song is billed, does not contribute to our understanding of the character singing it or the world he's living in. It plays as a diversion, a vaudeville act dropped in the middle of a 1920s Eugene O'Neill play, as if it were inserted merely because the actor (Noah Galvin) listed "saw playing" as a skill on his resume.

Things like this distract you from what should be your main focus: brothers Pete (Al Calderon) and Jake (Charlie Brady) coming to terms with their father's death, and their friends Chet (Andrew Durand), Frances (Molly Ranson), and Dusty learning the events and emotions that sculpt others' souls are no more quantifiable than those that inform their own lives. Ideally, the individual stories that compel everyone to discover both the literal Burnt Part and the charred portions of their own humanity would be vivid enough to power the show without filler. But only Pete and Jake are defined in some tangible way other than by their anger at or fear of the mine, and then it's only by their bare tolerance for each other. The roles Frances, Chet, and Dusty play in the narrative are ill-conceived almost to the point of extraneousness.

Great musicals—or even good ones—are not constructed in this way. The moments that need music must have it, and the ones that don't shouldn't; composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen display throughout an uncanny inability to tell the difference. (There's not a song in sight, for example, when every major character is facing down death at the end of the evening, but there are at least four climbing songs and three about the fall of the Alamo.)

Not that Miller, Tysen, and librettist Mariana Elder are trying to write a "traditional" musical. They're going for a semi-experimental mood piece, much in the vein of James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim's Follies (there's even a quartet of miner ghosts who comment, guide, and encourage, but mostly just change the set) or Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's Floyd Collins. But those shows have inventive books and intricate scores that inextricably link their stories with the method of their telling. The success of this show depends entirely on your caring whether everyone will get to the Burnt Part and then back safely, but the writers don't employ a rich enough dramatic language to encourage that. That merely propose and set in motion a scenario, but neglect to explore or develop its ensuing theatrical implications.

The Burnt Part Boys, then, is a concept musical without a concept, and this deficiency affects every aspect of the evening. Director Joe Calarco has given the show a listless staging on Brian Prather's cheap-looking set, which is little more than a quartet of ladders wheeled about into endless, incomprehensible combinations. Elizabeth Flauto's costumes and Chris Lee's lighting do the job, but likewise evince no overarching artistic vision. The performances are largely forgettable as well, with only Michael Park making a consistently charismatic impression as the lead miner ghost and, uh, Davy Crockett. Brady isn't remotely believable as an 18-year-old, but he sings well enough and conveys the strongest sense of being adrift in the only world he's ever known. Calderon, Galvin, and Ranson don't convey a similar confliction, which doesn't help make them engaging when the script does nothing to help.

Musical highlights are few, but they suggest wisps of half-buried promise. The first occurs near the beginning in "Eight Hours," a lively let's-go-drinking song in which Jake and Chet divide into the thirds their drudgery-pocked days. The second and last, "Disappear," happens much later, when a despondent Jake struggles to come to terms with the dark and dangerous existence he can't escape—and isn't sure he wants to. These songs succeed where most of the others fail because they outline a world that could exist nowhere outside the confines of this particular show. That kind of originality is why many theatre lovers attend musicals. If they wanted musical saw specialty acts, they need progress no further down 42nd Street than the Times Square subway station.

The Burnt Part Boys
Through June 11
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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