The Musical Theater Lab in the Massachusetts Berkshires gets off to a promising start with the preem of "The Burnt Part Boys," a new tuner that spotlights fresh talent in a production that embraces the theatrical imagination. Tuner shows potential for future productions, especially attractive for its chaste teen characters and uplifting themes.
Out-of-town summer tryouts find many different kinds of homes, with some heading to the hills while others descend into basements. In the case of Barrington Stage’s new Musical Theater Lab in the Massachusetts Berkshires, shows go in both directions. The three-show summer series gets off to a promising — and fitting — start with the preem of “The Burnt Part Boys,” a new tuner that spotlights fresh talent in a production that embraces the theatrical imagination. Tuner shows potential for future small-scale productions, especially attractive for its chaste teen characters and uplifting themes. More work is needed, however, to reach sophisticated auds.
Spotlight on new talent is the point of the series, co-produced by composer William Finn and a.d. Julianne Boyd. The last time the two combined forces, the result was the workshop and subsequent premiere of Finn’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Boyd & Co. now are trying to spread that wealth in the development of shows by emerging theater writers and composers.
The no-frills production — the show is presented in the basement of a municipal facility — not only focuses on the material, it empowers it — sometimes beyond its present substance. Much as he did with Off Broadway’s “Shakespeare’s R&J,” helmer Joe Calarco drives the production with energy, speed and the simplest of props and staging to create a rich theatrical experience.
With rolling ladders, wooden chairs and Brian Prather’s wonderfully claustrophobic, environmental set (auds on both sides of the action, surrounded by wooden planks and a low ceiling), Calarco creates a production that focuses on the characters and the coming-of-age story.
Set in the early ’60s, show follows a sextet of early adolescents on a quest (at least for some of them) to halt the reopening of a Virginia coal mine that 10 years ago killed their fathers and others. Fourteen-year-old Pete (Daniel Zaitchik) and chubby bud Dusty (Robert Krecklow) have found solace in their fatherless world amid the fantasy of movies. Emboldened by their imagined Hollywood film heroes, they set off to blast the mine before it reopens, keeping the graves of the lost ones sacred.
Hot on their heels to stop them are Pete’s 18-year-old brother Jake (Charlie Brady), who works for the mine, along with his pal Chet (Brandon Ellis). Along the way, Pete and Dusty run across 13-year-old tomboy Frances (Katherine McClain). Bringing up the rear is Jake’s girlfriend, Annie (Halle Petro), the privileged daughter of the mine owner.
Much of the show is their long and challenging journey to the mine. However, as they travel deeper into the woods and up the mountain, they go only slightly deeper into themselves. Sometimes there’s a bit too much of an after-school-special feel to some of their self-discoveries.
At this stage of the work’s development, writing in the script and song needs more specificity to break out of the adolescent stereotypes. Desperate longing takes many forms, and the single idiosyncrasy of Pete — his imaginative escape into the father figures of Hollywood heroes (wonderfully embodied by Tim Ewing, in multiple parts) — isn’t enough. Final resolution and character transformations also lack clarity and punch.
Cast is splendid, with Zaitchik and Brady showing natural ease, charm and solid pipes as the brothers. Krecklow, Ellis and McClain all put the kick into sidekick. Petro’s two songs as the prom queen — “Loving the Boy” and “Lost” — are among the show’s most entertaining numbers (though the motivation for that character’s journey isn’t set up credibly enough).
While the big character- and scene-setting numbers are well-done, the songs by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen that are most affecting and original in their simplicity and sincerity are the cowpoke’s off-handed lament “Empty Saddles” and the song of remembrance by the miners’ ghosts, “I Made That.”
Deborah Abramson heads a trio of musicians who complement Miller’s ambitious tunes. Chris Lee creates pools of light — and darkness — out of the most surprising places. Kudos to Megan B. Henninger’s sound, which plays a pivotal part in the play.