Even though I found myself running to Playwrights Horizons to make curtain on time, I very ungracefully climbed over a few seats just in time to see The Burnt Part Boys, a haunting new musical from Mariana Elder, Chris Miller, and Nathan Tysen. Telling the story of a coal mining community scarred by the memory of a tragedy that has left many local children fatherless, the musical details two brothers’ journey to the site of the cave-in which has been deemed “the burnt part,” the younger brother hoping to blow up the area so that they can’t reopen that part of the mine and the older brother trying to stop him. It’s a rather dark tale, especially light of recent current events, but it’s also an ambitious piece of theatre—the idea of creating such a fantastical journey on stage seems quite daunting from afar.
The production requires a bit of imagination, but it’s not hard. Though just a few ladders serve as many of the obstacles the boys (and one girl) encounter along the way, it’s not hard to picture them making their way through barbed wire fences or railroad tracks. In fact, the sparseness of the set only gives way to greater emotional space, places where grief finds pockets between connecting ladders or on the other end of a hanging rope. The fact that a chorus of fallen miners move the set pieces around ensures that there is always a prevailing memory of what this town was built on. The last twenty minutes are also incredibly gripping, with even just the visual aspects enough to make me tear up a little.
In the same vein, the music is evocative with the twangs and rousing harmonies of a familiar landscape. The lyrics are also incredibly tight, revealing the complexity of the characters’ emotions through a tumble of rhymes and verbage. Check out some songs at Miller & Tysen’s official website here (along with songs from some of their other works), and here is a little video someone put together for an audio clip of Skylar Astin and Andrew Durand singing “Disappear”:
Also, on a side note, if you see the production, you will have the privilege of seeing Noah Galvin in one of the starring roles. Not only is he a complete delight throughout, but I also remembered how he delivered this performance a couple years ago at “Don’t Quit Your Night Job”: