CEDAR RAPIDS - The Grandon Studio at Theatre Cedar Rapids is an intimate space, and that can work to show's advantage or to its disadvantage. In the case of the musical "The Burnt Part Boys," the space does a little of both.
"The Burnt Part Boys" is the story of a group of young people living in the shadow of a mountain where their fathers were killed in a mining accident. When one of them learns that the mining company intends to reopen the portion of the mine were the accident happened, he sets out to stop them. With the help of two friends - and pursued by his older brother and his friend - he ascends the mountain to carry out a dangerous plan. Meanwhile, the memories of the lost fathers and the images of the heroes the young man has seen in the movies haunt the characters.
The design team of Derek Easton and Daniel Kelchen have transformed the Grandon into a coal mine while leaving a flexible playing space that, with the help of a few props and set pieces, can become all the other necessary locations for the story. It's an impressive accomplishment and a perfect use of the Grandon Studio.
Nevertheless, the combination of the small space and a five-piece band creates some challenges for actors as they work to be heard. The band - under the direction of pianist Janelle Lauer and featuring Matt Brooks (guitar and dobro), Greg Kanz (percussion), Tara McGovern (fiddle), and Dave Ollinger (bass) - is excellent, but it is very difficult for the ensemble to play quietly enough for some of the vocalists. As a result, some of the singing is strained and off pitch, particularly in the first act. The struggles to be heard are exacerbated by the splitting of the audience between two sides of the playing space.
The cast, under the direction of Leslie Charipar, turns in heartfelt performances, and that emotional depth often carries the actors through those moments during which they are hard to hear. Dustin Davaldo plays Jake, the older brother with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He delivers the musical highlight of the show with his heartbreaking performance of "Disappear," a song of longing and sacrifice. Kyle Langhurst plays Jake's friend Chet, and his portrayal of a man who may well be satisfied with a life in the mines is well crafted.
Melissa Tormene is exceptional as Frances, a young girl who has fled the town to live in the mountains. Tormene is one of the cast's strongest singers and she perfectly captures her character's blend of fierceness, fear and sadness.
Brennan Urbi plays Pete, the character at the center of the story. His singing was a bit uneven over the course of the evening, but his portrayal of an idealistic young man willing to go to extremes to defend his beliefs is generally convincing. Connor Hurley plays Pete's friend Dusty, providing well-timed comic relief as well as a lovely musical moment at the top of the second act.
Rob Beland, Jon Day, Daniel Kelchen and Luke Brooks form a chorus of the lost miners, and the first three also have turns as historical characters from Pete's imagination. They combine to provide some of the play's most moving moments, including singing "I Made That," a song of pride in their families.
In the end, "The Burnt Part Boys" is a moving reminder of the importance of family, and the TCR cast shines a bright light on that notion in the darkness of a coal mine.
WHAT: "The Burnt Part Boys"
WHERE: Grandon Studio, Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
WHEN: Through July 12; 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays
TICKETS: $15 and $23 advance, $18 and $29 day of performance, Theatre Cedar Rapids Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org