“I’m one of many boys, and I’m ready to explode!” sings young Pete (Al Calderon) in the new musical The Burnt Part Boys, and the sentiment is one many teenagers can relate to. However, this lad means it metaphorically, and the antihero at the center of Elizabeth Meriwether’s Oliver Parker! means it quite literally. There’s an ocean separating the intents of these two works, but the wants of young boys that are not quite men is quite popular these days (e.g. American Idiot), it merely depends on whether you like your theater salty or sweet.
The Burnt Part Boys, certainly in the latter camp, has been kicking around for a bit, and it’s all too apparent that some things have been shorn since its earliest development. Telling the story of a group of guys (and one girl) who travel to a distant mine to soul-search their way back to losing their fathers there 10 years prior, it seems to have an everlasting build-up only to arrive at a too-rushed wrap-up. The country-flavored score by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen is of the unhummable variety that confounds many crowds but has some flavorful tunes, though the music doesn’t conjoin harmoniously with Mariana Elder’s book, which even throws out some decidedly un-’60s lingo (“nut sac”?). Director Joe Calarco attempts to outdo Susan Stroman’s recent, brilliant staging of The Scottsboro Boys with its spare set of chairs and ladders to create natural surroundings. But this work, creaky as the floorboards on which the cast steps, never reaches that kind of apex. Despite strong work from its wide-eyed young performers (the adults get much shorter shrift here), it rarely takes the viewer out of familiar woods.
If The Burnt Part Boys is good-natured Wonder bread, then Oliver Parker! is burnt toast that’s been peed on. The play is basically a skeezy takeoff on Oliver Twist where the title orphan is now a sly yet totally messed-up 17-year-old horndog (Rescue Me’s Michael Zegen) and Fagin is a sixtyish, slobby, Kenny Rogers-on-meth-looking health hazard (John Larroquette). The former, a spoiled rich brat, allows the latter to reside in a rented NYC apartment while making the moves on a bluesy senator (Johanna Day) and eventually her starchy aide (Monica Raymund) as well, while the past slowly comes to light about the relationship between the older man, now ravaged with lung disease, and the young teen, a bouncing ball of nerve and insecurities. I’m not sure that Meriwether truly earns all of her twists and turns here, but she has a fantastic way with dialogue (such as when Oliver is told by the Senator that she has cellulite: “I don’t know what that is, but I wanna put it in my mouth”).
And under Evan Cabnet’s well-contemplated direction, the cast turns a raw, often slightly sensational piece into something much more affecting. The entire quartet is excellent, but this production might best be remembered for Day’s spectacular turn in the play’s most difficult role—a grieving pill-popper slowly slipping away while in the public eye. Her performance is so rich with believable anguish yet limber and humorous as well, I could have watched her do a whole one-woman show about this woman (Willa Cross!) right afterward.
The Burnt Part Boys is now playing at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd St.) in New York City and through June 13. Schedule: Tue-Sat at 8pm, Sat & Sun at 2:30pm, Sun at 7:30pm. Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission. For tickets, click here; Oliver Parker! is now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce St.) in New York City and continues until June 6. Schedule varies. Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission.