In Luzerne, Pennsylvania, the town at the heart of Lantern Theatre Company’s Minors, coal mining might be in decline, but the kind of enterprises that grow on the backs of the young have continued to thrive in the 21st century. Kittson O’Neill and Rob Kaplowitz’s well-meaning but undercooked new musical spans the decades, drawing comparisons between the early years of the coal-mining industry and its exploitation of young men to the “kids for cash” scandal of 2008, in which two Luzerne judges received kickbacks for funneling teens into the prison system to fuel for-profit juvenile detention centers.
We follow four teens (Amber, Kelli, TJ, and Frankie Jr.) and their parents as they battle for justice after a “zero-tolerance” judge sends the students to juvenile detention for petty crimes. All the while, Breaker Boy, a representative of the young men of old charged with the dangerous and deadly job of sorting coal by hand, lurks in the shadows, morphing into the occasional agent of the judicial system. He reminds us that there have always been men who use others for personal gain.
It’s a necessary story to spotlight, but Minors could benefit from more time in development to better articulate its message. The coal storyline is a smart parallel, and it finds a vulnerable and transformative host in Sav Souza as Breaker Boy—they have one of the best songs in the show, “Broken Land,” showing the tainted foundations on which many American businesses are built.
But the musical relies too heavily on dramaturgical program notes and Nick Embree’s set design (the walls are made to look like coal tunnels) to fill in the gaps in the book, where Luzerne’s coal history and the tragic realities of the Breaker Boys are glossed over or absent. The book exceeds the lyrics in narrative impact and nuance, and many of the songs are little more than sung-through speeches with ham-fisted or clichéd lines (“I’m gonna help my Frankie open his wings and fly”). The scenes of spoken dialogue are richer, and it is here that O’Neill’s work as a new play dramaturg comes through. Kaplowitz’s choice of the rock genre feels right, switching between electric and acoustic guitars and utilizing pumping drum beats to capture the heart of blue-collar America. However, the melodies are confined and a little too plain—I enjoyed listening but could not remember a single refrain after I left the theater.
Ready for the next level
The team includes a cast filled with powerhouse voices and budding Philadelphia talent. Terran Scott (Kelli) and Grace Tarves (Amber) shine as the two young women leading the charge to right the wrongs done to them and other teens in the Luzerne scandal. The trio of Ben Dibble, Jennie Eisenhower, and Marybeth Gorman lend their undeniable talents to paint portraits of those who are parenting alone, doing their best in unfair circumstances. Director Matt Decker collaborates well with the pace of the music, driving the show at a snappy tempo and never allowing it to drop into sentimentality or be overcome by melodrama.
There’s plenty in Minors that works, and the skeleton of the musical is firm and ready to be taken to the next level. With time, the team might be able to excavate this important story.
What, When, Where
Minors, by Kittson O’Neill and Rob Kaplowitz. Directed by Matt Decker. Through June 30, 2019, at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
The Lantern is not a wheelchair-accessible venue. Patrons who need early seating or related assistance may inform the box office when purchasing tickets.