Take a bit of “Stand By Me,” throw in a mining disaster, add some Appalachian musical numbers and you’ve got The Burnt Part Boys, making its West Coast debut at the Third Street Theatre in Los Angeles.
Set in 1962, Boys tells the story of two West Virginia brothers, Jake and Pete, who lost their father in a mine explosion ten years ago. Now the news arrives that the mining company is going to re-open the site of the disaster – the “burnt part” – and their reactions couldn’t be more different. Jake (Aaron Scheff), the older of the two, is excited by the possibility that he’ll be made foreman of the mine. Pete, on the other hand, is angry that the place where his father lost his life is going to be desecrated.
Pete sets off for the Burnt Part with his best friend, Dusty (Adam Dingeman), intending to blow up the shaft with dynamite stolen from Jake’s workbox. Along the way, they meet up with Frances (Lauren Patton), a former schoolmate whose rebellious ways have transformed her into an outcast who lives alone in the woods and fends for herself. She invites herself along, insisting that she can show them the way.
When Jake discovers the theft of the explosives, he takes his sidekick, Chet (Joe Donohoe), to help him find Pete before the boy can do anything to hurt anyone – or ruin his own chances with the mining company.
Essentially, this is a story about coal country boys who face a bleak future slaving away in the filthy, dangerous mines. When Pete sets the dynamite charges to permanently seal the mine entrance, it’s his way of not only preserving his father’s memory but of preventing Jake from following in the man’s footsteps.
There’s a lot of dramatic potential in this story that could have been conveyed musically, but composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen have missed opportunities with a rather repetitive score and lyrics that are descriptive rather than artistic. The show could have benefited from more dialogue scenes and fewer songs.
These songs – and there are many of them – begin to blend together, and you find yourself wishing that one would come along and really soar, but it just never happens. It’s certainly no fault of the actors or the musicians. The cast is earnest and everyone sings well, and the small band (Gregory Nabours, David Lee, Eden Livingood and Nikolaus Keelaghan) sounds great. Among the actors, Matt Musgrove stands out as multiple characters, including the boys’ father, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie.
Director Richard Israel keeps the action moving, but that’s all the actors do – keep moving – over hill and stream (albeit imaginatively suggested by Will Pellegrini’s multilayered set). But when they finally do reach the end of their journey, the piece disintegrates into an ill-conceived, melodramatic climax.
The Burnt Part Boys plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through October 20 at the Third Street Theatre, 8115 W. Third Street, Los Angeles. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 655-9232.