An Appalachian teen sets off on a mission that will change his life and the lives of those he loves in Mariana Elder, Chris Miller, and Nathan Tysen’s exquisite new musical, The Burnt-Part Boys, now getting a polished gem of a West Coast Premiere under the inspired direction of Richard Israel.

The year is 1962 and a decade has passed since an explosion took the lives of a dozen West Virginia coal miners deep down in the South Mountain Mine, a once-thriving mine-turned-burial ground that the locals have come to refer to as “The Burnt Part.”

Now, despite the mining company’s original promise to let those twelve men rest forever in peace, news arrives that the South Mountain Mine is soon to be reopened, an announcement that outrages sixteen-year-old Pete (Daniel David Stewart), whose father lies buried in The Burnt Part.

BPB_7 Adding to Pete’s fury is the discovery that his eighteen-year-old brother Jake (Aaron Scheff) and Jake’s best friend Chet (Joe Donohoe) have agreed to being reassigned to work in The Burnt-Part. How dare they defame their fathers’ memory by trespassing on their grave sites?

Aided and abetted by the ghosts of Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie (not coincidentally the heroes of Pete’s current favorite movie, The Alamo), Pete and his best chum Dusty (Adam Dingeman), one of the few local kids not to have lost a father, set off to insure that The Burnt Part stays buried forever.

BPB_1 Along the way, the pair are joined by feisty young Frances Boggs (Lauren Patten), who’s had to learn to fend for herself in the woods, and who makes sure the boys invite her to be part of their mission by first stomping on Pete’s compass and then conveniently informing them that she knows the way to the Burnt Part by heart.

Meanwhile, older brother Jake’s discovery that Pete has broken into Jake’s lockbox and stolen a half-dozen or so sticks of dynamite sends Jake and Chet in pursuit of the would-be bombers, a race to the mine that insures an air of suspense throughout The Burnt Part Boys’ ninety-minute running time.

“Original” is a term rarely applicable to a new American musical, but The Burnt Part Boys feels truly original both in the characters drawn by book writer Elder and lyricist Tysen (when was the last time you saw a musical about Appalachian teens?) and in composer Miller’s complex yet gorgeous melodies (at once bluegrass and cutting-edge).

BPB_8 Adding to the musical’s power is young Pete’s determination to preserve the memory of a father he barely remembers by keeping his resting place unsullied, and the aching longing he still feels for “The Man I Never Knew.” If you can experience The Burnt Part Boys’ final, transcendent moments without tears, you are made of steelier stuff than I.

It helps, of course, to have five-time Scenie-winning Director Of The Year Israel helming this project. With the aid of scenic designer Will Pellegrini, Israel insures that this The Burnt Part Boys’ West Coast Premiere has the “theatrical dynamics” the New York Times found lacking in its off-Broadway debut in 2010.

BPB_6 Performances could hardly be better, actor-director Israel inspiring an all-around terrific cast to create one real, three-dimensional character after another.

BPB_10 Stewart (a Best Lead Actor Scenie winner for Master Harold … and the boys) gives a heroic performance as Pete, equal parts strength and vulnerability, and like his castmates has bona fide musical theater vocal chops.

Scheff (in his most prominent role to date) and Donohoe (in change-of-pace dramatic mode) provide splendid—and leading-man handsome—support as Jake and Chet.

Following a string of teen starring roles at the Rubicon, Patten gives another rave-worthy performance, vanishing inside Frances’s tough girl shell yet revealing the wounded child within.

BPB_5 Completing the cast of teens (or teen stand-ins) is the awesomely talented Dingeman as Pete’s quirky, spunky best friend—and saw player—Dusty.

Rich Brunner, Richard Hellstern, Philip Dean Lightstone, and Matt Musgrove provide topnotch support as the youngsters’ doomed fathers, whose spirits remain present throughout, with Musgrove getting the plum, scene-stealing assignment of playing Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie in Alamo The Movie mode.

Repeated listenings to The Burnt Part Boys’ Original Cast Recording has made me a fan of Miller & Tyson’s songs, whose gorgeous melodies may not be what you’d call hummable, but command multiple listenings like those of Adam Guettel (to name a composer whose influence is heard in Tyson’s complex note poems).

Under Gregory Nabours’ (Scenie-winning Musical Director Of The Year this year and last) magic wand, a uniformly stellar cast nail composer Miller’s complex vocal harmonies, while Nabours himself shines as keyboardist alongside fellow live musicians Nikolaus Keelaghan, David Lee, and Eden Livingood.

BPB_2 Pellegrini’s chameleon-like set is scenic design at its most imaginative (note how a kitchen table morphs into one different thing after another, and the way a suspension bridge is created out of rope and thin air). Vicki Conrad’s “Almost Heaven, West Virginia” costumes, Johnny Ryman’s dramatic lighting (including one scene lit almost in darkness), Nicholas Acciani’s meticulous properties design (the vintage Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box was created specifically for this production), and Cricket S. Myers’ as always expert sound design create a superb design package.

BPB_4 Director Israel is assisted by Suzanne Doss. Lindsay Capacio is stage manager. Casting is by Amy Lieberman, CSA.

The Burn Part Boys unites the much missed West Coast Ensemble Theatre and relative L.A. newbie Third Street Theatre for a production that rivals the best of each company’s individual achievements. Introducing West Coast audiences to a uniquely beautiful, original work by three very talented young writers, The Burnt Part Boys may well end up searing your heart as it did mine.

Third Street Theatre, 8115 W. Third Street, West Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 15, 2013
Photos: Elizabeth Mercer

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