Friday 12 August 2016

Review The Burnt Part Boys

The Burnt Part Boys
Book by Mariana Elder
Music by Chris Miller
Lyrics by Nathan Tysen

 To The Mountaintop  

It's 1962 in a mining town of West Virginia where, until a fatal underground disaster 12 years previously, the whole of the community depended on the company owning the mine.

The Burnt Part Boys is a coming-of-age musical centring on fatherless 14 year old Pete (a tender performance by Joseph Peacock), obsessed with John Wayne movie The Alamo, who views the closed mine as a shrine and grave to his Dad and the others who died in the accident.  

Hearing on the transistor radio of his older brother Jake (Chris Jenkins) that the company will be re-opening the mine, Pete, inspired by a mixture of grief and his favourite movie, determines to take action. 

He persuades his friend Dusty (Ryan Heenan, sweetly combining bumptiousness and vulnerability), who also lost his father, to accompany him up the mountain to Burnt Part, the mine scorched by a fire following the fatal accident. However Pete doesn't tell his companion the second part of his plan to keep the mine closed for ever. 

This should have the makings of a stonking, much-at-stake story, with a book by Marianna Elder and music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen. But this tale doesn't deliver the courage of its beginnings.  

The historical, political, native American and cinema references promise greatly at the start with a tinge of sophisticated Sondheim amid the hillbilly country and bluegrass style. Yet the possibilities are not followed through by the creators of this musical who seem content to rest on the laurels of a good idea.

Even so, there's good work here in this theatre-in-the-round production fluidly directed by Matthew Iliffe with Charlie Morgan Jones's lighting design in the Park90 studio space. It also benefits from  a minimal set of ropes, drapes and lamps hanging from the ceiling designed by Rachel Wingate, just enough to let the audience's imagination do the rest.

The band led by Nick Barstow on keyboard with violin, guitar, bass and percussion give lively and nuanced accompaniment.

The characters are all well-defined although there was some struggling with accents causing lines and lyrics to be lost. Nevertheless this musical gives an opportunity for some splendid choral harmonies as well as individual turns and duets by Pete, brother Jake, the latter's friend Chet (Chris Jenkins and David Leopold grasping the mettle and giving depth to teens given responsibilities too soon). 

David Haydn brings singing ability and humour as Pete's movie and American folklore fantasy figures fusing eventually into his lost father. Jonathan Bourne as Dusty's ghostly father also gives a glimpse of a fine voice in an eleventh-hour solo moment. 

Meanwhile Grace Osborn as wildcat Frances also sings characterfully in a pleasingly Katherine Hepburn-tinged performance.

At the same time, it's a curious mixture of  a musical with heart with touching moments and a musical by numbers letting the grit of mining life slip away.  

The story notably drops at what should have been the most dramatic moment just before the delivrance of the boys and Frances from underground. Titles such as "I Made It" and some of the references in the lyrics nevertheless give a clue to what could have been a more complex musical paralleling mining, family trees, filmmaking and the creation of a musical.

So. the potential of the story is never mined (pardon the pun!) by the writers. And yet ... the choral singing gives an indication that a bigger cast might add an epic dimension. 

And while it might be heresy with such spirited performances, we did wonder whether the story would have had more trajectory if it had been the "Burnt Part Girls" and brought in other implications. Ouch, there, we've said it! In the meantime, it's a canary-coloured amber light from TLT and her little wagon at the coalface.


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