Attending new musicals is a hazardous vocation. Much like prospecting or share trading, golden hits are rare and disappointment a frequent companion. Every now and then, though, a gem is uncovered, sometimes flawed, sometimes not. Such gems make every miss worthwhile. The Burnt Part Boys is such a gem.
Smoke pours into the air. The atmosphere is close, hot, slightly scary. A spider’s web of lamps, cables, length of rope is suspended above – the sense of ending, of being trapped underground is profound. The mood is fretful, the ambience rotten and decaying. Ghosts of dead miners appear and sing from their empty hearts about loss and longing.
This is Matthew Iliffe’s European premiere of the 2010 musical The Burnt Part Boys now playing at the Park90. It is the first musical to play in the Park Theatre’s smaller space. With a book by Mariana Elder, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and music by Chris Miller, The Burnt Part Boys is a poignant and intense analysis of love, loss, masculinity, family and redemption set amongst those left behind when a mining accident wipes out many of the fathers in the town.
It is not every musical which squares up to the question “What is a man?”, but this one does.
This is not a musical with tap shoes, chorus girls/guys or humorous subplots. It’s a musical about life and one that provides insight and much food for thought. It’s a musical that fathers should take their non-communicative sons to see; a musical that sons should take their always-busy fathers to see; a musical that families can enjoy.
Jake and Pete are brothers. Their father was killed in a mining disaster when Pete was small; many men in the town died that night. Their bodies remain in the sealed mine, a part of the mountain now known as the Burnt Part.
Pete has missed his father. He substitutes John Wayne as his father figure and The Alamo is his favourite film. Jake loves his little brother but resents him too; Jake did not want the role of surrogate father, but his own father’s death made him the man of the house.
Jake and his best mate, Chet, a ruffian with a penchant for booze and broads, are offered jobs with the mining company which intends to reopen the mine where the dead men’s remains lie. Pete is furious when he discovers this and steals some dynamite and, together with his best and oldest friend, the musically inclined Dusty, heads for the Burnt Part. What he intends to do with the dynamite is unclear, but Jake and Chet set out to stop Pete and Dusty.
Along the way, Pete and Dusty encounter the gun-toting Frances, a girl they used to routinely mock at their school. She too lost her father in the disaster and now she has run away to fend for herself in the wilderness. Making an odd and insecure pact, the trio make their way to the Burnt Part, pursued by Jake and Chet.
Inevitably, Jake catches up with Pete and attempts to lay down the law. Pete turns on Dusty who runs away, betrayed and hurt. With all the characters lost and confused, one way or another, it takes Pete’s dynamite determination to cause a calamity which heals their rifts while placing all of their lives and futures in extreme jeopardy.
The Burnt Part Boys is almost operatic in its sensibility; certainly the music is the fuel of the work and the music is what clarifies, intensifies and crystallises the poetic intent, the profound human drama that unfolds.
Ghosts are used as a kind of Greek Chorus, to comment upon and illuminate the actions and thoughts of the main characters. One ghost, that of the father of Jake and Pete, has a slightly different role to play. But, viewed another way, the ghosts are merely extensions of the thoughts, especially the heavy guilt, of those left alive in the wake of the mining disaster.
Grief is the key factor here. Equally important is coming to terms with grief and finding a way to respect the past and move through the grief into the future. Every one of the main characters undertakes that journey here, but each in very different ways. That is the cleverness, the unique point of interest about The Burnt Part Boys.
The relationships between the characters are intense and real: Pete and Dusty, Pete and Jake, Jake and Chet, Jake and Dusty, Chet and Pete, everyone and Frances. In a particularly telling sequence, Dusty vocalises the guilt he has felt for years because he alone had a father growing up. The sharp, brutal honesty of that moment is searing.
Iliffe’s production brings out many such moments. He is happy to let the piece move sedately, without a concern for action. The characters can breathe and ruminate, emotions can gather and bubble over. Through time and stillness comes eloquence and understanding, compassion and forgiveness. Humility and friendship.
Rachel Wingate’s set and costumes briskly and brilliantly summon up a sense of the hills of 1962 West Virginia where the action takes place. The lighting from Charlie Morgan Jones is superb throughout, creating and confirming moods and places with ease; the moment when Pete ignites the dynamite is remarkable.
Nick Barstow’s impeccable musical direction is the poetic and dramatic cornerstone for the production. In his hands, this tone poem of emotions and guilt changes key, becomes a unique musical meditation that engages and warms as smartly as it pierces and educates. The score shimmers with the heat of parental and brotherly passion, with the strings of friendship, and with the bugles of backwoods existence.
Barstow and his finely tuned band of four provide impeccable musical support and the country and western/bluegrass tone to the tunes is clear, vibrant and vital. Anthems, ballads and rousing choruses all get assiduous musical support.
Some of the acting from the company is slightly too much an anglicised version of what a country guy from fifty years ago would look and sound like and sometimes there is a little too much channelling of aspects of Hucklebery Finn, Tom Sawyer and Annie Get Your Gun.
But it doesn’t really matter, and in some ways, homing in on those stereotypes makes the situations seem more comprehensible. The laconic but deadly offhandedness of Justified might have, however, provided a more bracing palette.
Still, there is particularly fine character work from David Leopold as the rock-ape with feelings, Chet, as true and as noisy a friend as any man might hope to have.
Ryan Heenan is equally effective, but in a completely different way, as the breakfast cereal snaffling, saw-playing musician in the making, Dusty. Both Leopold and Heenan have thrillingly good voices and both make memorable characters, winning and thoughtful.
Joseph Peacock (Pete) and Chris Jenkins (Jake) convince as brothers who love each other as much as they hate and are frustrated by each other. Both are slightly too over the top in their characterisations, but as they are complicit in this together, it somehow works better than it perhaps should. Each sings well and true, albeit occasionally too loudly than is strictly necessary.
There is good work from Grace Osborn and David Haydn, both of whom provide welcome comedy relief.
The score is stuffed with interesting harmonies and intricate melodies, but particular standout numbers include Sunrise, Balancing, Dusty Plays The Saw, Countdown and the remarkable I Made That.
The Burnt Part Boys is a terrific musical with unusual subject matter and a very enjoyable score. It may not be perfect but it is a refreshing theatrical experience, one that will leave you humming and thinking.
Powerful and very worthwhile.