by Matthew Falduto
Cedar Rapids – The Burnt Park Boys, a little known musical by Mariana Elder, Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen set in coal mine country, is TCR’s latest Grandon Studio show. It’s a show well suited to a smaller venue as the story is an intimate one and the music is not overwhelming, but rather comfortable and familiar. Walking into the Grandon Studio, you immediately realize the set is part of the experience. Everything about it evokes a mine. You enter the space between a sliding chain link fence. The floor of the stage is covered in woodchips surrounded on all four sides by wooden beams that suggest the the cross beams of a mine. This isn’t the first time scenic designers have completely transformed the space – for Clybourne Park, we literally walked through the front door of the house to find our seats – but it’s probably the most effective. Kudos to Technical Director Derek Easton.
What I thought would be just a show about coal miners turned out to be an emotional story about fathers and sons (and a daughter). Burnt Part Boys is story of two brothers whose father was killed, along with a number of other workers, in a mine accident years before. Now 18 and 14, the older brother, Jake (Dustin Davaldo), is going to go to work in the mine where his father was killed. The younger brother, Pete (Brennan Urbi), doesn’t want to see the mine re-opened as he views it as the grave of his father and the other miners. Pete decides to blow up the mine to stop the re-opening, and conscripts his friend, Dusty (Conner Hurley), to help him. Jake sets out to stop him along with his friend and fellow miner, Chet (Kyle Longhurst). Along the way, Pete meets up with Frances (Melissa Tormene), whose father was also killed in the mine accident. She offers to lead them to the ‘Burnt Part’ where their fathers’ bodies still reside.
The direction was really what set this show apart. It’s staged in the traverse style, with audience on two sides of the stage facing each other. The challenge with this style is making sure the entire audience has some part of the show to connect to at all times. Using the four corners of the stage as well as offsetting actors so each side of the audience can see the face of at least one of them are both effective techniques. Director Leslie Charipar uses both of these methods effectively. I was always drawn into the action for the entire show. In addition, she made excellent use of the entire space, with the actors using an audience railing as a cliff to climb in one scene. The sliding chain link fence was also used to great effectiveness in the show.
Some of the most fun moments of the show were when Pete was faced with a challenge on his journey and one of his heroes would show up to guide him. Davy Crockett (Daniel Kelchen), Sam Houston (Jon Day) and Jim Bowie (Rob Beland) all appeared to help Pete on his journey. Those three actors also played the fathers of Frances, Pete and Jake, and Chet respectively, all of whom had died in the mine. The actors had to show quite a bit of range to move from the comedic Western hero roles to the ghostly fathers and all performed admirably.
Conner Hurley has great comic timing and created a heartwarming and funny sidekick character. One small suggestion for the younger actor – stand still! The constant shifting from foot to foot was distracting. However, as good with the comic moments as he was, Hurley really shone in his solo song. The beautifully heartfelt rendition of the song “Dusty Plays the Saw” was moving and funny at the same time.
Melissa Tormene was fantastic as Frances. She brought an energy to the stage that was infectious and made her male co-stars even better. Her best moments were with her Dad, played perfectly by Kelchen. The wordless emotion between the two of them at the end of play was simply beautiful to behold.
Brennan Urbi has the toughest role in the show, as Pete’s actions seem reckless and difficult to believe. However, Urbi does a good job creating this immature character driven by the passion of youth. He is also helped by Davaldo’s excellent work as older brother Jake. Davaldo does a great job creating an 18 year old kid who is trying so hard to be older and more mature than his years. When he lets go of that facade toward the end of the play, it’s a powerful moment.
The lighting was well done. Flashlights and helmet lights were some of the unique choices Derek Easton made to create the scenes. Joni Sackett’s costume design was also simple and effective.
The music was provided by an excellent five piece orchestra – just a fiddle, stand up bass, piano, guitar and drums. The songs ranged from fun (“Eight Hours”) to heart rending (“I Made That”). The singing is strong throughout the show. Davaldo in particular has a resonant voice that commands attention. The best numbers though are when the multiple voices join together. The miners’ songs, for instance, add much to the emotion of the piece. Charipar is also masterful as staging these songs for maximum emotional impact.
I’d strongly recommend you check out The Burnt Part Boys. It’s a well acted show with infectious music staged in a provocative and creative way. Don’t miss your change to see this unique show!