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‘Burnt Part Boys’ captures miners’ milieu amid spirited song

'The Burnt Part Boys' GriffTheatre features Max Zupp(front from left) Charlie Fox Mike Tepeli Morgan Maher.

"The Burnt Part Boys" at Griffin Theatre features Max Zuppa (front, from left), Charlie Fox, Mike Tepeli and Morgan Maher.

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When: Through Dec. 22

Where: Griffin Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $25-$36

Info: (773) 975-8150;

Updated: December 15, 2012 6:13AM

‘Eight hours diggin’, eight hours drinkin’, five days a week.”

That’s how two young West Virginia coal miners sum up their lives in “The Burnt Part Boys,” the poignant family musical with an Appalachian twang now in its Midwest premiere by Griffin Theatre.

What the song doesn’t say — but what anyone who thinks about a coal miner’s job knows all too well — is that every day a man goes down a mine shaft he is, in a very real sense, visiting the underworld. A heightened awareness of mortality lurks, even if it is suppressed. And what’s more, for the children of those miners — many of whom will follow in their father’s treacherous footsteps — there is a haunting legacy of fatalism, fear, loss and defiance. Accidents, as everyone knows, are part of the job.

“The Burnt Part Boys,” with a lovely score by Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics), and a book by Mariana Elder, is set in a West Viriginia town in 1962, where 10 years earlier just such an accident took the lives of many men, some of them the fathers of young children. Although the mine was closed down, it is now about to be reopened. And one boy, Pete (Charlie Fox, a clearly gifted young actor and singer), who was just four when his dad perished — and who feels the loss of his dad with a particular ache — is determined to thwart the plan.

Pete’s older brother, Jake (Mike Tepeli), who has tried to be a surrogate father to the boy, already works in the mines, along with his pal, Chet (Morgan Maher). They are pragmatists. Pete’s best friend, Dusty (the hugely engaging Max Zuppa, who even does a fine turn playing the saw), is a sweet, imaginative kid who loves to perform. He also is one of the “lucky” kids in town since his dad is alive, and he admits to feeling a sort of guilt about that.

When Pete sets out to blow up the remote Burnt Part site with dynamite left over from his dad’s days in the mine, Dusty nervously follows. But he is “replaced” when the two come upon Frances (the fierce and fiery Hannah Kahn), the wild and rebellious daughter of another miner who perished in the accident.

Meanwhile, when Jake and Chet get wind of Pete’s plan, they go in pursuit, trying to prevent him from seeking the sort of revenge that will only destroy him. The song “Balancing” beautifully captures the situation.

Periodically, the “ghosts” of the fathers (played by Paul Fagen, Johnny Moran, Jared Fernley and Alex Stage) hover, with Fagen also appearing as Dusty’s favorite historical heroes — Sam Houston, Davey Crockett and Jim Bowie.

Director Jonathan Barry, with help from Chelsea Warren (set designer) and Lee Fiskness (lights), has not only tapped three wonderful youthful talents, but has used the most minimal means (four chairs, a table, rope and headlamps) to aid in the transformational storytelling. And if the 90-minute show (something of a kissing cousin to Adam Guettel’s “Floyd Collins”) is a bit slow to start, it picks up momentum as it goes.

Nicholas Davio’s musical direction homes in on all the score’s lovely harmonies and traditional mountain sounds. The splendid orchestra includes Kim Lawson (violin), Jay Pike (viola), CamMcIntyre (double bass), and Davio (acoustic guitar).

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