January 24, 2012

Few scores establish their “voice” quite as rapidly as does the score for this poorly titled but highly intriguing one-act musical that had its Off-Broadway premiere in 2010.

First, let’s get past the issue of the title. This is not a musical about child abuse by fire, as the title suggests to some. Nor does it tell a story of the victims of war or terrorism as others have expected based on its title. 

“The Burnt Part” refers to a section of a coal mine somewhere along Appalachia’s Clinch River where twelve miners died in an explosion in 1952. The musical is set a decade later as children of some of the victims react to the news that the mining company plans to re-open the mine where their fathers are entombed.

The score is by composer Chris Miller and lyricist Nathan Tysen, both of whom have been gathering awards and grants for emerging artists in the musical theater from organizations sporting names like Richard Rodgers, Jonathan Larson and Frederick Loewe.

From the music’s first notes on twangy guitar and fiddle you know you are in for a boot-scooting country sound. It isn’t the over-produced sound that emerges from Nashville studios for what passes today as “country music radio.” No, this is a small band, atmospheric blend of blue grass, country and dramatic underscoring.

From the lyric’s first words you know there will be intelligently utilized imagery. Tysen opens with coal miners singing “God’s eyes shine down on me / In the hole where the black coal lies / God’s eyes shine down on me / Down where you can’t trust your eyes.”

These are the miners who lost their lives in 1952′s explosion. The show then flashes forward to 1962 and focuses on the 18 year old son of one of the dead and his 14 year old brother.

The younger boy is played by Al Calderon, one of the tremendously talented kids who made their Broadway debuts in Jason Robert Brown’s 13. Calderon and Charlie Brady, who plays his older brother, make a strong impression, along with Andrew Durand and Noah Galvin as their best friends. Added to the mix is Molly Ranson with a natural sounding twang as a tom-boy who teams up with Calderon for part of a trek through the woods to the site of his father’s death.

A conceit of the musical is that each time the 14 year old has a seemingly unsolvable problem, he enlists one of the heroes from his favorite movie to help him out. Since that movie happened to be John Wayne’s The Alamo – this was 1962, after all – those heroes are Davy Crocket, Sam Houston and Jim Bowie. As the boy is 14 years old, and one who lost his father when he was just four, the figments of his imagination are all endowed with father figure aspects and, thus, are played by the same actor who plays his dead father.

That actor is Michael Park, who made his Broadway debut in Smokey Joe’s Cafe but who I recall best from his hoofing rendition of “I’ve Got Your Number” in the Faith Prince/Martin Short revival of Little Me in 1998. On this disc it is clear that he has a great time playing each of the heroes in the fantasies. His Davy Crocket is an impersonation of John Wayne in an impressive musical scene. His lines are all spoken while the rest of the cast provides something of a musical Greek Chorus. 

Park does his own singing as a soused Jim Bowie in “Bowie’s Lament” that introduces one of the important themes of the show — life is worth living if you live it for a cause. It is encapsulated in Tysen’s grammatically awkward but appropriate lines “You stand and fight for right or wrong / Every man has his chance to chose / You live a life deservin’ of song / That’s a life worthy to loose.”

The show had a very brief run at the Playwrights Horizons Theatre in a co-production with the Vineyard Theatre. It was directed by Joe Calarco who also received “musical staging” credit. The book, by Mariana Elder, came in for some harsh words from some critics. Not having seen the show, my comments are limited to what is on the recording and I think I’ll steal Spencer Tracy’s line from “Pat & Mike” – “what there is, is choice.”

That goes for the vocal performances, the strength of imagery within a totally appropriate vocabulary for Appalachian coal miners in the middle of the twentieth century and the consistency of the blue-grass country sound of the score.

The instant recognizability of the small country band sound is, of course, to the credit of composer Chris Miller. But some praise should be reserved for orchestrator Bruce Coughlin. He gives the 18 tracks on the recording a commonality of sound without falling into the trap of being repetitious or boring. He does so with just six players on piano, violin, viola, bass, guitar, mandolin and percussion. They provide a full, rich supporting structure for the vocals and there are some notable if subtle pieces of underscoring including Maxim Moston’s mandolin on “The Climbing Song.”

Coughlin would seem to have been a natural choice for the assignment given his striking success at orchestrating Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins, another musical that seeks out a distinctly Appalachian sound. This isn’t the only sound Coughlin can create. His credits include the lush The Light in the Piazza, the jazzy 9 to 5, the quirky Urinetown and the show music-y revival of Once Upon A Mattress. But if there is one original cast album that this one brings to mind, it is Floyd Collins.

The packaging of The Burnt Part Boys recording has a quality appearance with a booklet using photos of the production behind the text. It includes a welcome full synopsis that explains the role of each song in the telling of the story. This is an album that is much more enjoyable when you read along as you listen than if you stare off into space. Some of the subtle games of word play, especially the inventive use of words with multiple meanings and verbal reverses, are easier to catch with the text before you.

For example, Tysen has Sam Houston giving the young 14 year old brother this assignment in one fantasy from The Alamo – “Take down Santa Ana / A battle I need you to battle / You’ll be there at the line /  May your mission at that mission / Be to keep it a shrine.”

Unfortunately, the printed lyrics are hard to follow because the notation of which character is singing the lines is in the same type face as the words he or she is singing.

This release is on the Yellow Sound Label, a relatively new but very welcome addition to the few labels still producing quality cast recordings. May they do many more!

The Burnt Part Boys
Original Off Broadway Cast Recording
Yellow Sound Label catalogue YSL 566793
List price $13.98
Running time: 50 minutes over 18 tracks
Packaged with synopsis, lyrics and 18 production photos

The Burnt Part Boys