What with "Floyd Collins," "Billy Elliot the Musical" and "The Burnt Part Boys," there's now quite the body of musicals involving characters going down the mines. Aside from the chance to lyrically exploit the contrast between the pit and the sunlight, always useful in a tuner, this flows, I suspect, from the unique respect that we hold for the men and boys who head down the mine shaft, where danger lurks as surely as multigenerational tradition sustains.
Of those three titles, "The Burnt Part Boys," which had its intimate Chicago premiere Monday night, courtesy of the Griffin Theatre and director Jonathan Berry, is by far the least known. That is unlikely to change. "Burnt Part" (the name refers to a mine after a fatal fire) does not have anything like an Elton John pop song; in this case, the songwriting team of Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen has forged a bluegrass-rooted score, heavy on the fiddles, apt for the 1962 rural West Virginia setting and replete with a tendency to settle into what feels like repetitive theatrical grooves. Although it is superbly well-played by a live band huddled in a corner of one of the spaces at Theater Wit, one waits in vain for a soaring, breakout melody — Lord, does this show need it — even though one constantly feels the string-fueled rumble of its potential. It will emerge, perhaps, in the next show these guys write.
But in the brothers Pete (Charlie Fox) and Jake (Mike Tepeli), not to mention their funny, sword-playing buddy Dusty (Max Zuppa), their pal Chet (Morgan Maher) and their tomboy sidekick Frances (Hannah Kahn), "The Burnt Part Boys" does have a set of engaging young characters created by the book writer, Mariana Elder. It doesn't make this show "Newsies" (nobody is tapping and twirling through the hills of coal country in this mostly sad tale), but it does give the piece some heart, deftly emphasized by Berry's honest, earnest and likably dogged Chicago production, which pushes relentlessly past the problems of the material.
It still takes a while to get to like "The Burnt Part Boys," or follow where the boys are going or when they might be going there, but these personalities eventually awake a spark. Fox and Tepeli, who don't have a dishonest bone in their bodies, have a great deal to do with that appeal. Pete and Jake are brothers touched by a loss you can feel.
The turning point for me Monday night came when the boys, whose banter and meandering adventures have a touch of Mark Twain about them, encountered some evergreen trees on their way to try to come to terms with the mine where Pete and Jake's father died. They were planted, they know, by the mining company, a standard response whenever there's a loss. At that point, you start to see the show as the struggle of a group of young people against becoming more collateral damage, even as they try to create some kind of alternate future in a time and place where their choices were few and their ties binding. There are more adventures ahead — Zuppa's Dusty has an especially goofy quality, and Maher comes with copious amounts of emotional heft — and there are nightmares and dreams still to navigate, but by this juncture the show is on a surer emotional track.
So hang in there as these "Burnt Part Boys" and their director find their way through the peaks and valleys. The score has a similar initial problem with specificity and foregrounding, but it engenders respect for its integrity. Other rewards hide down the shaft of this show: warm-centered but unsentimental performances from capable actors (especially young Fox), a haunting story and a production that cares about the characters therein.
When: Through Dec. 22
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes