Chicago Theater Review: THE BURNT PART BOYS (Theater Wit)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 13, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins remains the ultimate spelunking musical as it depicts a cave explorer entrapped by both hard rock and a media spectacle. The Burnt Part Boys, a 90-minute slice of coal by bookwriter Mariana Elder, composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen (originally premiered by Playwrights Horizon), is less ambitious and more folksy as it depicts the aftermath of a West Virginia coal mine fire in 1962. It’s got more heart than guts or brains—and the ending is too glib—but as staged by Jonathan Berry, Griffin Theatre Company’s Midwest premiere makes this country musical a likable look at four sons and a daughter reclaiming the fathers they lost ten years before.

In 1952 an unexplained blaze in the South Mountain coal mine claimed the lives of unlucky coal miners whose bodies were never recovered. Ten years later, the mine is about to be reopened for business as usual. For the kids who lost their dads, this seems a callous way to exploit what remains a graveyard. (Since the cause remains curiously unexplained, the company is not accused of negligence.)

Jake (Mike Tepeli) and younger brother Pete (Charlie Fox, gifted with a glorious tenor) view the reopening differently. For Jake and his rowdy buddy Chet (Morgan Maher), it’s a chance to continue their fathers’ goal of “moving up by digging down,” though they have no illusions about the American dream or the virtue of sweating in a shaft. But, inspired and encouraged by imaginary Alamo fighters like Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, impetuous Pete wants to discover and seal up forever the “burnt part” where his dad lies buried. He’s joined by his comical friend Dusty (Max Zuppa), who likes to play the saw harp but has trouble fitting into mine shafts, and Frances (Hannah Kahn), an untamed mountain girl/Annie Oakley who’s braver than both boys.

They embark in a West Virginia hero journey a la Huckleberry Finn, breaking through barbed wire, climbing the mountain, taking a boat down a creek, and climbing some more—all of which Miller and Tysen’s lilting bluegrass songs richly chronicle. After these half-orphans meet up with Jake and Chet, Pete closes the shaft forever, causing a collapse that almost claims a new generation of coal mine casualties. But the ghosts of their dads, singing “I Did That,” provide enough wishful thinking to overcome Pete’s misguided tribute and free them to find the light.

The continuous country score, beautifully shaped by Nicholas Davio and performed by five country-music wizards, is the show’s redeeming grace—and it’s perfectly performed by a young and very apt nine-member cast. Despite its pat ending, The Burnt Part Boys works well at evoking the spirit and sass of young dreamers, contrasting their inexhaustible energy with a hard job where you “take from the earth until it takes you.” You just might dig it.

photos by Ben Yalom

The Burnt Part Boys
Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit
scheduled to end on December 22, 2012
for tickets call 773-975-8150 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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