By Pat Launer
Last year at this time, actor/singer/director Jordan Miller and his wife, actor/singer/musician Jessica Couto founded a La Mesa-based company, Theater for Young Professionals.
Their third production, the 2010 country/bluegrass musical, “The Burnt Part Boys,” is being staged at Moxie Theatre.
It’s set in 1962, in a West Virginia mining town, ten years after a mine collapse and fire killed a number of men, many of whom left behind young children.
Two brothers, Pete (Gavin August) and Jake (Asher Parsons) have pretty much raised themselves ever since, because in her grief, their mother withdrew into silence.
Jake’s friend Chet (Dylan August) also lost his dad, as did a runaway girl, Frances (Carissa Shelton), who now lives off the land in the woods. Only Pete’s best friend, Dusty (Scotty Atienza) was spared a parental loss, and he feels guilty about it.
When Pete finds out that, despite promises to the contrary, the mine is being reopened, and his brother is going back in where their father died and still remains (the area is now referred to as “the burnt part”), he’s determined to take matters into his own hands. He plans to blow up the place.
To spur on his bravery, Pete is visited by fully outfitted and aptly armed characters from his favorite movie, “The Alamo” — Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and Jim Bowie (all humorously played by Miller). The dead miner-fathers (Miller, David Humphrey, Christopher Lessen, Luis Sherlinee) also make forceful musical appearances. The tension and suspense build toward the end, and the future of all the kids is far from certain.
In the new company, the adults serve as role models and mentors to the young actors, part of the commendable mission of TYP.
The musical they’ve chosen, with book by Mariana Elder, music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen, could play rather static. But Jordan Miller, a skillful director and fight choreographer, aided by his limitless ingenuity, an onstage turntable, tree stumps and two wheeled ladders, keeps things and people moving, so interest never flags.
The professional six-piece band is excellent (music direction by Jessica Couto; band leader, Tony Atienza), but tends to overpower the young singers who, due to budget constraints, are not miked.
But everyone gives it their all (Atienza the younger even learned to play the saw with a bow for the production), and the characters are well defined, especially the youngest ones, robustly played by Shelton, Atienza and Gavin August, all displaying considerable moxie at Moxie.
The set (Miller), costumes (Couto), lighting (Brandon Rosen) and especially the evocative sound (16 year-old Catherine Tarlov, who also understudies the role of Frances) add considerable dimension to the production.
It will be fun to watch these young performers develop and hone their skills over time. (I’ve already seen Scotty and Gavin in professional productions). This new company is providing a wonderful proving-ground for all of them.
- The Theatre for Young Professionals production of “The Burnt Part Boys” runs through Dec. 1 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. near SDSU
- The remaining performances are Nov. 26 at 7 p.m., Nov. 27 at 7 p.m., Nov.29 at 7 p.m., Nov. 30 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Dec. 1 at 2 p.m.
- Tickets ($15-$25) are available at 646-241-4008 or www.typsandiego.org
- Running time: 2 hrs.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
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