note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Alexander Wright
Book, Music, and Lyrics: Willy Russell
Director: Ellen Kazin
Musical Director: Steve Shapiro
Choreographer: Susan M. Chebookjian
Stage Manager: Stu Kazin
Production Manager: Evelyn Corsini
Set Designer: Don Richardson
Mrs. Johnstone.......................Shana Dirik
Narrator.............................. ...James Grana
Sammy...................................David M. Giagrando
Mrs. Lyons.............................Julie Walker
Mr. Lyons..............................Glenn Ryan
Tom Brien, Jennifer Bubriski, Liz Buckalter, Jamie W. Burnside, Amy Demarco, Steven Malatesta, Susan Rubin, Doug Vermes
In the stagnant world of community theatre musicals where "Oklahoma", "South Pacific", "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum", and "Jesus Christ Superstar" have become the bland, unimaginative, and rather boring norm, Arlington Friends of the Drama has served up an appetizing and often appealing alternative. While the Friends' current production, Blood Brothers, appeared in London over a decade ago, it is only a few short years since this musical was on the Broadway stage. Even though it does not have a very strong book or score, we are given an opportunity to see some very fine amateur actors (three of particular note) in a fresh and nicely done production that I would rather view 100 times over than yet another moldy old chestnut.
"Blood Brothers" tells the story of Mrs. Johnstone (Ms. Dirik), who is deserted by her husband while expecting twins. She can barely make ends meet without the additional burden of her impending delivery. When Mrs. Johnstone's current employer, childless upper class Mrs. Lyons (Ms. Walker), learns of her situation, she convinces Mrs. Johnstone to give her one of the twins at birth. With reservations, Mr. Johnstone concedes and the two brothers, Mickey (Mr. McLaughlin) and Eddie (Mr. DeVivo) grow up in different neighborhoods, but manage to become friends without knowing they are siblings.
As the brothers grow older, they seemingly grow apart. Mickey is a blue collar worker who loses his job, becomes involved in crime and turns into a pill popping addict. Eddie, with the Lyons' ample resources, attends university and becomes a town official. The brothers become increasingly unable to relate to each other and eventually fate catches up with them as the narrator keeps repeating that for such a trade off at birth, ultimately a price has to be paid. Superstitions abound in this musical and foreshadow the eventual undoing of Mickey and Eddie--shoes placed upon the table, sorrow for seeing a single magpie, and most importantly death of parted twins who discover the truth of their birth.
Arlington Friends have struck a goldmine with three performers--Mr. DeVivo, Ms. Darrow, and particularly Mr. McLaughlin. The title of the show is "Blood Brothers", so it is quite fitting that the strongest performers are those portraying Eddie and Mickey. Mr. DeVivo and Mr. McLaughlin work seamlessly together and convincingly play children as well as young adults. Both have tremendously capable voices that are pure listening pleasure. While both actors are equally compelling, Mr. McLaughlin tends to consistently grab your attention. From his physicality to the growing discontent of his maturing life, Mr. McLaughlin brings a completeness to his character that is rarely seen in the world of community theatre musicals.
Ms. Darrow as Linda, childhood friend of the brothers and eventually wife to Mickey, is also an absolute treat to watch. She brings a delightful mischieviousness to her younger life and channels this into a gradual maturity and sense of responsibility in her early adult years. Ms. Darrow perfectly expresses her struggle of having to choose one brother over the other.
Some of the other performers don't reach the level achieved by the three mentioned above. This was a disappointment, given the credentials of two leading actors in the cast.
Ms. Dirik has a more than adequate voice and brings a lovely sparkle to the wistful Mrs. Johnstone as she dreams of having a better life. Unfortunately she is a little too young and too pretty to bring the much needed weather-worn, put-upon, and haggard dimension to the character. In one of her songs she states that "by the time that I was 25, I looked like 42". Mr. Dirik always looks as fresh as a daisy and she too frequently has a lively spring in her step to make us believe otherwise. A lot of Mrs. Johnstone's life has not gone as she has wished and we need to see how this affects her being. By not endowing the character with this quality, her performance is only half-baked.
In the role of the Narrator, Mr. Grana (a five time winner of the best actor award at the annual EMACT award festival) misses the boat. His performance is composed of a mixed bag of stereotypical posturing and posing (the standard arms folded across the chest with a crossed leg, the occasional hand on the chin). The starch-stiff, brooding and often awkward approach with which he delivers his dialog more resembles that of a preacher than an observant commentator. His job should be to gently plant the seeds of conscience within the minds of the characters and let them grow on their own. Mr. Grana is also out of step because he does not have the vocal range nor the vocal style required for the role.
Mr. Ryan as Mr. Lyons, the upper class father of Eddie, creates a solid and believable character. Ms. Walker, portraying Eddie's mother, is not as successful. She doesn't have much of a feel for the dynamics of the text and is the weakest link in an otherwise fairly strong ensemble. Ms. Walker never lets us observe the growing paranoia and desperation of her character to protect and keep her son from knowing his true roots. When the neighborhood children taunt her for being a madwoman, it doesn't make sense because we have not even remotely witnessed any emotional build.
Director Ms. Kazin plays mostly by the book, which is fine, especially for a newer musical that has not been bludgeoned to death by community theatre. She has given us a worthwhile final product that is engaging and entertaining. But she passes up a lot of opportunities that would take this production to the next level. For example, Mrs. Johnstone sings several versions of a song called "Marilyn Monroe". Within these songs, she tells us of the events of her life, past and present, often making analogies to Marilyn Monroe. Ms. Kazin has chosen to minimally stage these numbers. The songs could have been beefed up with more creative and more active stage involvement from the ensemble. This would have given Ms. Dirik a little more to work with than just the lyrics. The set design by Mr. Richardson also reinforces this impression. While functional, it is not as innovative and creative as it might be.
The musical direction, under the talented Mr. Shapiro, is of exceptional quality. The balance between the musical ensemble and the cast is right on the mark. In addition, he does a wonderfully effective job orchestrating the score with a very small number of instruments (piano, synthesizer, bass, percussion).
Arlington Friends of the Drama has give this musical its due and should be encouraged to continue producing fresher, newer musicals. Blood Brothers is a welcome alternative to the usual stale workhorse musicals offered up by most community theatres. And the Friends' production is testimony that such newer musicals can be done just as well and provide an evening of entertaining, thought-provoking, emotional, and compelling theatre. I heard through the grapevine that this group is planning to mount another recently created musical, "Side Show", next season. After Blood Brothers, I am eagerly looking forward to buying my tickets for that one.