Burning Up: Actors' Theatre explores loss, labor and brotherhood

For Jake and Pete Twitchell, it’s the 10-year anniversary of their father’s tragic death in a 1952 mining accident. The Pickaway Coal Company’s South Mountain in rural West Virginia — locally nicknamed “The Burnt Part” — is where the death of those four miners occurred, three of whom left behind children.

Now, in 1962, older brother Jake is working at the mine, doing the same job his father did. Younger brother Pete is not, and when he learns that the coal company plans to reopen the fatal work site, he and his friend Dusty plan to hike the mountain and blow up the mine. When Jake learns of Pete’s plans, he and his friend Chet also try to stop them by climbing up the mountain after them. As the boys venture up the treacherous mountain, they meet the ghosts of the dead miners, including their dad, and Pete sees his heroes, who he imagines his father to be, like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.

This month, catch a performance of Burnt Part Boys by Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids, directed by Jolene Frankey, with music direction by Scott Patrick Bell.

This weaving tale of family, loss, resilience and self-discovery is told through the unique sounds of what some may say is bluegrass, but Bell says is actually Appalachian folk music.

“The stories in that music are tragedy, murder, misery,” Bell said. “So there are a lot of things that happen that are told in the story of a mining accident. A lot of that music told those stories.”

To get an idea of the sound, Bell compared it to the soundtrack for the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

Bell added that the show also has music considered to be pop — contemporary broadway music. The same composer, Chris Miller, also wrote Tuck Everlasting and Bell said you can hear that “folk undercurrent” in all of his pieces.

“This is an acoustic band, there are six people that perform in it, everything from the little string section,” Bell said, about the live accompaniment to the show. “That’s another type of music that kind of influenced traditional Appalachian music; the string band, like violin, banjo, the fiddle.”

“We have actors that play the guitar, the banjo, the saw,” Frankey added. “So that’s fun, to be able to incorporate their talents, to supplement what we get from the actual orchestra.”

Bell also said the chorus is influenced by gospel music.

One of the most interesting parts of the process was figuring out how to depict a mountain onstage. Set designer Don Wilson is behind the artistic design.

“He has given us some layers to help with the depth, and there’s a backdrop defining the hills and the trees, but other than that it’s a really blank stage,” Frankey said. “We are telling a story using pieces that would have been found only at the coal mine or on the worksite. Our trees, we represented through a variety of ladders and planks and buckets, crates, rope, fencing. Anything that would have been at the whole mining site.”

Audience members can expect a one-act musical, lasting about 90 minutes.

“I personally appreciate staying within the ‘world,’ you don’t have an intermission to pull you out and to discuss with your friends,” Frankey said. “You stay locked in with the actors on the entire journey. I really like that.”

What’s unique about Bell and Frankey pairing up for this show is that they actually have become a local performance duo, having done a handful of musicals together as well as musical gigs at local bars and restaurants. They both say there’s something “organic” that happens when they collaborate.

“We are also really good friends, so there’s definitely a playfulness in the way that we just enjoy it,” Bell said.

“We both have a fun, off-the-wall sense of humor,” Frankey added.

For the show, both Bell and Frankey are excited for the audience to see the unique sounds that come from this musical, and the story within it.

“It’s unexpected, the sound,” Bell said. “And it’s so based in our country’s history and the sound of these people. If this show were your graduate thesis on Appalachian music, all of those elements are in this show.

“Once you start listening to it, you’ll just want to hear it again.”

Burnt Part Boys
Actors' Theatre
160 Fountain St. NE, Grand Rapids
Jan. 31-Feb. 9