Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review: The Burnt Part Boys Take a Trip Up The Mountain

Daniel David Stewart and Aaron Scheff as brothers (Pete and Jake).
Photos by Elizabeth Mercer

Death has a huge impact on the living. Even when it’s expected it is still a shock, but when it happens unexpectedly, it leaves loose ends and things unsaid that can have repercussions later. I have a niece who lost her dad at the age of almost three, suddenly, and without warning. She went to bed and he was sitting in his rocking chair in the other room. In the morning he was gone. 

Luckily for her, and her two pre-teen sisters, we have a large family that knows how to rally the forces at a moment’s notice. Her mother, my sister, is an incredible woman who just picks up and carries on. Because that’s what you do. You get back to work. You raise the family. You make the best of things.

But what if that wasn’t the case? What if my niece had to grow up being raised by a sibling not much older than her because her mother had given up and couldn’t get out of bed? What if our family was like Pete’s family in The Burnt Part Boys?

Pete (Daniel David Stewart) is 14 and his father, along with eleven other men, were trapped in a West Virginia mine collapse and fire ten years earlier and died. Since then the “burnt part” has been closed, becoming a kind of legendary shrine to the victims whose bodies were never recovered.

Aaron Scheff (front) with Danel David Stewart, Joe Donohoe,
Adam Dingeman & Lauren Patten

Pete’s 18-year old brother Jake (Aaron Scheff) has been doing his best to provide for his family and pay off the debt by working in the mine full time ever since dropping out of school. But do the math. That means he left school at 8 or sometime thereafter, set any dreams of another life aside, and took up the responsibility of providing for his family. No wonder that chip on his shoulder is so full of anger. Poor kid probably never even got his own chance to grieve.

Aaron Scheff (Jake), Daniel David Stewart (Pete) and Joe Donohoe (Chet)

The story begins here, with Pete learning that the burnt part is going to be reopened and that Jake will be the new foreman. Pete is furious. Spurred on by imaginary visits from his movie star idols, Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, and with his reluctant best friend Dusty (Adam Dingeman) in tow, he sets off to dynamite the mine and make sure no one ever enters it again.

With a breathtaking transition from Pete’s kitchen to the great outdoors, it becomes a traveling musical directed with touching insight and sincerity by Richard Israel. His imaginative use of the stage and ordinary objects to conjure up images of the rolling hills, rushing river, and treacherous woods is a creative way to bring the great outdoors to an intimate playing area. An advantage Israel has is that The Burnt Part Boys hasn’t been done here in L.A. yet and the element of surprise is on his side. You really don’t know what’s coming next. (Twenty minutes near the end of the show are so compelling and unexpected that my heart was pounding.)

Tension mounts as Jake and his buddy Chet (Joe Donohoe) learn of Pete’s plans and follow the younger boys up to the mine to stop them. Determined to get there first, Pete steps up the pace and stumbles across Frances (Lauren Patten), a girl who disappeared several months earlier and has been living in an abandoned cabin. She joins them, much to Dusty’s dismay, and the trio continues on its way. Patten attacks the role mostly by yelling to get her point across but a sweet scene between Frances and Pete over dandelions and crackers offers vulnerable insight into her otherwise loud, obnoxious personality.

Stewart is a real find. The young actor’s combination of naïveté and determination makes his coming of age journey extremely poignant. He also sings beautifully. Scheff’s “Disappearance” is bitingly delivered, and with lyrics like “Eighteen years old / trapped in a life under the ground / I’ve done everything right / feels like I’m 40 / already the man I will be when I die,” it brings home the harsh reality of his life. Donohoe is a likeable best friend whose natural good old boy humor is full of charm. Dingeman is a little heavy handed punching the jokes but when he relaxes into it the moments work.

The cast of The Burnt Part Boys

Four dead miners (Matt Musgrove, Richard Hellstern, Philip Dean Lightstone and Rich Brunner) add a sobering presence to the piece giving The Burnt Part Boys an unexpected soulfulness. “I Made That” is especially moving. Part of the show’s inherent appeal is its folksy Appalachian music. The tunes are alternately lively, plaintive, and driving, with an old-time mountain feel. Harmonies are full and the singers blessed with a gorgeous blend. Musical director Gregory Nabours achieves the sound with a 4-piece string band – David Lee (guitars), Eden Livingood (violin), Nikolaus Keelaghan (viola/percussion), with Nabours on keyboards. Where in the world he found a musician proficient in both viola and percussion I don’t know, but the effect is terrific.

A thoughtful vision by director Richard Israel, heartfelt performances, and seductive mountain music that will carry you away are what you’ll find in The Burnt Part Boys. And since death is as much a part of life as the changing seasons, and a destination we’ll all reach someday, we owe it to ourselves to make the moments count now. Make mine musical, please.

Book by Marianna Elder
Music by Chris Miller
Lyrics by Nathan Tysen

Sept. 7 - Oct. 20, 2013
Third Street Theatre
8115 W. 3rd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90048
Tickets: (323) 655-9232 or

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