It’s easy to enjoy the teenagers who take center stage in the latest production by Actors’ Theatre, “The Burnt Part Boys.” The family dynamics between older and younger teens, separated by just four years, is explored. The 14-year-olds are still in a bit of a make-believe world, while the older boys are taking on the realities of manhood. The conflict that ensues puts each on an adventure up a West Virginia mountainside, one group hot on the trail of the other. It’s within that concurrent journey their stories emerge.
Pete (Jack Reeves) is the younger brother of Jake (David Houseman). Since losing their father in a coal-mining accident 10 years prior, their mother retreated to the bedroom and Jake grew into the role and accompanying responsibilities as head of household. Pete, only four when his father died, seems to have searched for father figures in the heroic film stars of the day. This being set in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, that means actors like John Wayne playing Davy Crockett in “The Alamo.” In fact, it is these characters — Crockett, Jim Bowie and Sam Houston — who inspire him to stick to his guns and persevere up the mountain. The appearance of Davy Crockett, played by TJ Clark, with background harmonies hilariously supported by Ian Brown, Kait Polzin, Evan Bronkema and Devon Jordan, is one of the scenes that helps give levity to the seriousness of the situation.
Pete’s best friend Dusty reluctantly joins him in the quest, and along the way, they add a misfit schoolmate they find hiding out in the mountains, a scrappy girl named Frances (Madeline Jones).
Rounding out the teenage characters is older brother Jake’s friend Chet (Andrew Van Otteren). Both Jake and Chet have carried on the family tradition of working in the mines, and we get a rousing banjo-picking drinking song in “Eight Hours” when we first meet these two at the end of their shift for the day.
Throughout the journey, each of these teenage characters gets a chance to tell their story through song, and the talented cast handles them with great conviction.
Every single one of the kids in the group lost a father in that same explosion, an area now known as the “burnt part” of the mountain, save for Dusty. It’s interesting that his song seems the most poignant in the show, in the way that he knows he will never have the connection with his best friend that others in the group sadly share. He’s left alone battling his own insecurities and survivor’s guilt in the song “Dusty Plays the Saw.”
The song is beautiful, and there is much to appreciate in all the performances by this cast. I really feel, though, there was potential for a lot more deeply powerful, poignant moments. I don’t think the root cause lies with the local production. Something in the writing seems to keep the characters veering a little more toward a well-meaning outsider’s idea of what life in Appalachia is like, rather than tapping into an authentic experience. That sometimes kept me a layer away from jumping right in there with them.
It provoked me to find a little background on the creators. Nathan Tyson (lyricist) is from Kansas, Chris Miller (music) is from Maryland and Mariana Elder (book) hails from San Francisco. All three met through NYU’s musical theater program. I know we can all tap into the universal experience of loss and coming-of-age stories, no matter where we are from, but defaulting to tragic events in a hardscrabble coal-mining community is too often used as a shortcut. The work still needs to be there. Maybe a little more input by someone with firsthand knowledge of the world they depict could have really driven this story home.
Even if the writers may have left a little of the heart and soul out, I must say the local cast and crew put much back in with their determination and grit. Delayed twice from their original opening night due to the historic Polar Vortex of 2019, they rallied back to open strong for a full and appreciative audience on Saturday night. I found my toes tapping along with the rest of them.
“The Burnt Part Boys”
(Book by Mariana Elder, music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen)
Feb. 7-9 at 8 p.m.
GRCC Spectrum Theatre
160 Fountain St. SE, Grand Rapids
Tickets are available online
Photos: Courtesy Actors’ Theatre