Be careful what you wish for because “the Devil’s got your number.” Let’s see… I wished for a a theatrical production with great musical numbers, and a story told in an unusual way by tremendous talent. And, I got what I wished for! All three, in fact!
But Willy Russell’s BLOOD BROTHERS is not your usual musical theatre fare with a happy ending. Still, it’s now on my list of favorite musicals done very well.
The opening scene takes chances, having the actors standing in the dark until the lights finally come up and we see two bodies and background turns red. The music is haunting and the devil of a narrator comes out to start the story. You know from the opening scene this is going to be a journey through life’s harsher reality. The play reminded me of LES MISERABLES but on a more intimate scale since it, too, is about class structure and what happens when you try to interrupt the way things are. You are setting up a tsunami of changes, like them or not.
Movement in this play runs fast and smooth like a steel roller coaster that reflects its unstoppable theme. Director Kat Kline takes advantage of some smooth choreography, thoughtful staging and perfect timing to keep this play moving and give the moments the strongest impact. You know the show is a runaway coaster–dangerous, but you sure don’t want to jump off.
The music here is certainly meaningful, engaging and catchy, and of course, well-played. I heard an audience member actually singing and humming a few lines of one of the songs at intermission. To me, that says, “catchy” or “memorable.” I don’t think there is a bad song in the lot either. Even if a song isn’t particularly witty and charming in your opinion, it adds mood or atmosphere by being juxtaposed to the action in such a way as to give greater impact to the story. Music is often playing under action and words. Some words are verse. This is musical theatre serious about art; it has more impact. It is not reality TV. So don’t go expecting reality, but do go expecting to be moved.
It’s also a wonderful thing when all the mics work as intended, the lighting is on cue and works within the story framework. The lighting and sound designs were impressive. The minimal set wasn’t my favorite, nor was it the most important element of the play–but it did the job it was meant to do, allowing ingress and egress of actors, and providing starting points for the action.
“One was given away and one was kept,” spoken by the Narrator, is a motif throughout, and I’m sure the double meaning is intended. The idea of being discarded or kept as one keeps a pet would be the second meaning. One boy had to grow up fast in the hard world, but missed out on more than the luxuries, while the other missed out on knowing the real world. Separating them at birth disadvantaged them only when they knew the truth, but it was too late. There lives entwined affected others to the point of a poignant, tragic end.
BLOOD BROTHERS is based rather loosely on The Corsican Brothers, an Alexander Dumas novella. The conflict involves not only nature versus nurture and the class struggle, it also reminds us that we are responsible for the way our actions impact others and make us make us who we are today. According to playwright Russell, the results are implacable. We couldn’t stop them if we wanted to. Whether you agree with Russell’s premise, he makes a powerful statement while entertaining his audience.
It may be an old theme, reminiscent of another century, the play and its ideas have resonated with audiences on Broadway and the West End. What Willy Russell wrote and presented in 1981 as a school play, BLOOD BROTHERS, debuted on the West End in 1983, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. It’s current revival in the London’s West End began in 1988 and has been there since, making it the longest running musical revival in that part of the theatre world. The play has had a successful run on Broadway and still has a cult of fans throughout the United States and abroad. The Broadway production opened on April 25, 1993 at the Music Box Theatre and closed on April 30, 1995 after 840 performances. Among several pop stars of the day, Petula Clark made her Broadway debut as “Mrs. Johnstone,” and David and Shaun Cassidy played her twin sons. Ironically, the Cassidy’s aren’t twins; they are half-brothers eight years apart in years. Clark also performed the 1994-95 tour.
However, big name star billing should take nothing away from these ultra-talented performers. I’m almost afraid I’ll run out of superlatives if I start naming every actor in the show. The extremely talented ensemble made it look easy as they took on multiple characters, often within minutes of each other. We knew we had just seen them as someone else, but we didn’t care–so good were the moments they were in, and they were in those moments a hundred percent.
The principals were simply amazing, starting with Jim Petro, as the devilish “narrator.” I can’t imagine this quintessential character portrayed any better even on Broadway. Members in the audience would make audible noises as soon as he stepped into the light or even if he was standing the shadows; he is the voice and constant presence of the play. He had the walk, the look, the singing voice, and even the crooked smile. You could almost see the horns.
Vicky Czarnik’s “Mrs. Johnstone” was also without comparison in my book. Her consistency in character, voice and presence was the centerpiece for our empathy, even though this play is named for her sons.
Ethan Daniel Levy as “Mickey” and Bryan Enright as “Eddie” have chemistry together as brothers and strangers as well as fine singing voices. As the sons, they also gave terrific performances, playing themselves at age 8, 14 , 18 and older. Unlike the characters in YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, we are not meant to accept the adult perspective of the adults-playing-children but rather children in our own vision. Played with real children, we make comparisons with the adult characters’ gene imagined pool and see the children as separate actors from the adults. The brothers become three or four characters instead of each one a unique person growing up in a different world.
I overheard someone in the audience say she wished they had cast the children who auditioned for realism sake, but I disagree. Director Kat Kline played it right using the adults. This is also the case for the children’s voices we here off stage. It is better that they not be real children but the improvised voices of our real cast. This is not realism; the play is done with a minimum of set, leaving most of the space open for movement and separate acting areas. We are continually reminded by the Narrator that this is a story–that it is a re-creation. Realism in theatre, like in a film is a fact to be judged–to be seen by the audience as an example of real life, but when the fourth wall is broken and the audience is addressed directly an argument can be made for art taking the place of realism and delivering a message.
I can’t leave out Robert Rodriguez, whose bad boy “Sammy” was totally believable in his every movement or utterance; or Tiffany Dydek, whose innocent love makes her unwittingly a victim of a decision made a before she was born. She, too, was entirely believable. Her Liverpool accent is remarkably consistent as is most of the characters, existing in the lower depths of society. For American audiences, I think, the upper class British accents (although not upper class “Liverpoolian”) were fine. I don’t think I’d know the difference. Cathy Liebars gave an often riveting performance as “Mrs. Lyons,” and Jon Rachlin, playing her husband did a very credible job as well.
Accents are always a sticking point with me, but only when they are important to the intention of the play. The British may have a more discerning ear when it comes to their own regional accents, but I was satisfied with what I heard here because it was coupled with good acting–and quite frankly I’m no linguist. “Spot on” or not, there was enough difference to make it work for me. The story is universal even though the play takes place in Liverpool. Russell is from Liverpool.
Director Kat Kline put together a terrific cast, designers and crew for BLOOD BROTHERS. This play marks Kline’s directorial debut with Pierrot Productions. This was the perfect vehicle for her. I was glad I came, and I got what I wished for. Not a bad way to end a Saturday night.
by Willie Russell
Directed by Kat Kline
August 18-28, 2011
at The Kelsey Theatre
Mercer County Community College
1200 Old Trenton Road
West Windsor, NJ 08550