BWW Reviews: Stunning Set is the Star of THE BURNT PART BOYS at freeFall
It's hard to believe it's been six years since freeFall's production of THE WILD PARTY took the St. Pete area by storm and is still talked about as perhaps the best local musical of the past decade. Two years ago, their CABARET was so popular that it had to be extended into a second run. (Even though I had major qualms with their re-imagining of the Kander & Ebb musical--telling the story as the Emcee's flashback, thus changing the entire meaning of the show, neutering rather than strengthening it--it was brilliantly done.) And last year, freeFall's SPRING AWAKENING was a high watermark of the theatrical year with exceptionally fine performances from the cast, especially Rachel Potter and Steve Garland.
And now comes their latest musical offering, THE BURNT PART BOYS. If there's one thing any local yokel knows, it's this: If freeFall is doing a musical, then you owe it to yourself to see it. Right away.
Although THE BURNT PART BOYS isn't as wild as THE WILD PARTY or as edgy as CABARET or SPRING AWAKENING, it is a major treat, a hidden bluegrass gem that should not be missed. But what else do you expect from the freeFall folk who are perhaps the most creative purveyors of theatre magic in the state?
With a book by Mariana Elder, music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen, the show takes place in a West Virginia coal mining town in 1962, the same year that the movie "The Alamo" was released in theaters (which plays a major part in the plot). Ten years earlier, the father of 14-year-old Pete (Cameron Kubly) was killed in a mining disaster along with three other men. When Pete hears that the "burnt part" area of the mine is about to reopen, he decides to go to his father's final resting place with his best friend Dusty (Joseph Flynn) in order to stop this ("No man will disturb his deep, deep sleep," he says). You can make comparisons between THE BURNT PART BOYS and STAND BY ME...a journey for one thing that actually becomes a coming of age search for self.
It's become a cliché to say that director Eric Davis is a creative genius working at the top of his game, but that's the case with most clichés: they're true. This wunderkind is a master of staging; watch how the characters move with motivation, with a purpose, not just to make things look interesting. And yet, the show is almost a ballet of bodies, chairs, ladders, and ropes, all moved about the stage with a seldom-seen ease due to Davis's masterful blocking.
The cast is uniformly excellent. In the lead role, teenage Cameron Kubly is quite likable and possesses a fine singing voice as the ordinary Pete, a part that grows stronger and stronger as the show goes on. I have seen Kubly in various shows at Blake High School for the Performing Arts, and he has always been excellent, but here he takes a leap forward and more than holds his own with a very strong cast. And Nick Lerew, as Pete's older brother Jake, also has some very strong moments, especially at the emotional finale.
Joseph Flynn offers comic relief as the bespectacled, goofy intellectual "marshmallow," Dusty, whose voice is changing as he enters what he calls "the p-word" (puberty); his "Dusty Plays the Saw" is one of my favorite songs in the show. Also unforgettable is Katie Berger as the only female in the cast--a ruffian scene-stealer, a crazed whirling dervish with a heart.
Patrick Ryan Sullivan as Pete and Jake's dad (as well as Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and Jim Bowie in Pete's imagination) plays each of his roles with a rollicking gusto. He reminds me of what James Carville once said of Bill Clinton--that when he walks in a room, the molecules change. This is the case with Mr. Sullivan, who cannot help but be the center of the scene even when he just stands in the background. And his song, "Davy Crockett," performed with a John Wayne swagger, is a showstopper.
My favorite performance is Nick Fitzer as Chet, Jake's pal who is filled to the brim with cockiness. He is a dynamo, and his wonderful early duet with Jake, "Eight Hours," is great fun, with the two of them using a bottle of booze as a football. He obviously gets a rush from performing, energizing the stage whenever he appears.
But the star of the show is Matt Davis's incredible set (with Mike Wood's brilliant lighting design complementing the mood of each scene). At first, the stage looks like an abandoned playground, a weird combination of "Little House on the Prairie" meets Dr. Seuss. It's a labyrinth made of wood, like a Rube Goldberg design with Lincoln Logs. And then the wood floors open into a drawbridge, and the effect is nothing short of astounding. Each time freeFall outdoes themselves somehow, and in this case, it's with this miraculous set design. I could hear the women in front of me say "Wow!" in unison when the floor first opened up.
But nothing is perfect. A couple of the early group numbers are not as tight as one would wish, and as strong as the songs are, sometimes they do have a sameness about them. A song list in the program would prove beneficial, but unfortunately there isn't one. This has become an unwelcomed trend of late; the last three local musicals that I have seen did not include a list of song titles for us to peruse before or after the show. This is usually most helpful to audience members, especially in a musical that is not as well known as, say, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.
Also, in one scene, Chet and Jake are eating Quake cereal. At first I thought it was a brilliant idea to add this--because the Quake mascot was a miner and the show deals with the mining tragedy and its repercussions. But then I remembered that Quake wasn't introduced until 1965, three full years after the action of BURNT PART BOYS is set. Anachronisms may seem small and trivial to you, but they take me out of the action of a show and make me wonder if those responsible for the props had done their proper homework.
The live six-member band, led by the marvelous Michael Raabe, is outstanding. And they help turn THE BURNT PART BOYS into such an amazing experience (yes, the show's title is off-putting, but so what?) This is another don't-miss musical that we have come to expect from this wondrous theatrical company. It deserves a packed house every night. It's not an overstatement to say that freeFall continues to be the theatrical jewel in the Bay Area crown.
THE BURNT PART BOYS runs through July 6. For tickets call 727-498-5205 or go to www.freefalltheatre.org.