When I first mentioned Minors, the world-premiere musical at the Lantern Theater Company through June 30, to the friend I was hoping to take, he thought I’d said Miners. And off we went on a riff about Floyd Collins, the dark 1994 Adam Guettel musical (also a local world premiere) about a cave explorer who gets trapped underground.
It turns out we weren’t all that far off the mark. Minors is inspired by the “Kids for Cash” scandal in Luzerne County involving two corrupt judges, private for-profit prisons, kickbacks, and the mass detention of juveniles for mostly trivial offenses from 2003 to 2008.
But the setting is central Pennsylvania’s anthracite country, after the mines have been tapped out. The backdrop of Nick Embree’s scenic design resembles a seam of coal. And one of the characters in this Kittson O’Neill-Robert Kaplowitz “roots rock” musical is “Breaker Boy,” whose dangerous task in times past was to remove impurities from coal.
This Breaker Boy (Sav Souza, an actor who identifies as non-binary) sets up the show’s defining metaphor, singing, beautifully, “Coal flows out/Bodies flow in. ... When coal is gone/All they’ve got to mine is you.” Over two acts, and just over two hours, Breaker Boy morphs into a variety of characters associated with the criminal-justice system, transforming victim into perpetrator and thoroughly muddying the metaphor.
Much else in this generally entertaining “ripped from the headlines” piece works. O’Neill’s book condenses the two judges into one, played by a truly terrifying and Nixonian Paul L. Nolan, and it coherently tells the story of four distinct families caught in the maw of criminal justice corruption.
For their first-ever musical collaboration, O’Neill and Kaplowitz (who are husband and wife) co-wrote the lushly metaphoric lyrics. One of the strongest numbers, “Blood on the Mat,” an Act 2 quintet expressing contrasting responses to injustice, harks back to one boy’s (ruined) wrestling career. Kaplowitz’s music draws on country and folk balladry, the “roots” in question, mostly powered by rock beats. (The four-piece band, with music director Amanda Morton on keyboard, sits high above the action.)
In the musical, the judge, citing the mantra “zero tolerance,” imprisons middle- and high-school students to keep prison beds filled and kickbacks flowing. Their parents or guardians are pressured into waiving legal representation. And the offenders — either innocent or guilty of such acts as internet mockery of a school official or minor vandalism — are sent to a private juvenile detention center. The experience scars them but also inspires them to seek redress.
Director Matthew Decker keeps the pace brisk and the intensity high. The parents are played by the estimable Ben Dibble, Jennie Eisenhower, and Marybeth Gorman, who is shattering as Angela, the wrestler TJ’s mother, complicit in his eventual fate. Terran Scott as Kelli and Grace Tarves as Amber, high-schoolers who bond in the detention center over laundry, outshine their male counterparts (Brady Fritz and Mekhi Williams).
Putting the kids center stage, Minors devotes only passing attention to the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader reporter who uncovered the scandal and the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which investigated it. The show ends too abruptly, without closure, with the ensemble singing a dirge about the Susquehanna River. In real life, justice finally did prevail: Both judges are serving substantial prison terms.
Through June 30 at Lantern Theater Company, 923 Ludlow St. Tickets: $28-$43. Information: 215-829-0395, www.lanterntheater.org.