Dallas — New shoes on the table: a bad omen—a quarrel with a loved one, a death in the family. A lone magpie—what’s the old rhyme? “One for sorrow, two for joy…” A broken mirror, salt spilled on the table. Superstitions abound in Willy Russell’s cult favorite musical Blood Brothers, a sort of modern-day Greek tragedy (with its very own Chorus) taking on the British class system in 1960s Liverpool. It’s superstition that leads, through twists and turns, to the play’s opening and closing vignette: two men, twin brothers, “alike as two pins,” lie dead at their mother’s feet. But how did these young men come to such a grisly fate? With that sort of mystery and melodrama at play, one would think you’d be in for quite the juicy night of theater.
But sadly, Blood Brothers never manages to fulfill the promise of its premise—the plot drags and the songs are forgettable. And Imprint Theatreworks’ production, directed by co-Artistic Director Joe Messina, is enthusiastic, but does little to elevate the material.
It’s the early 60’s, and Mrs. Johnstone (Lauren LeBlanc) has a problem—several in fact. First, her husband, the man who wooed her back in the day with dancing and comparisons to Marilyn Monroe—has walked out on her and their seven children. Next, her new position as a cleaning lady to a wealthy couple—the job that would finally see her and her kids financially stable—is threatened when she finds that not only did her husband leave her pregnant, he left her pregnant with twins. At her wit’s end, she makes a terrible bargain, one that sets the gears of fate turning: her employer, Mrs. Lyons (Lee Jamison), is barren and desperate for a child, and so proposes that she take one twin, and Mrs. Johnstone keep the other. Mrs. Johnstone gives one son up, but when she tries to go back on her bargain, Mrs. Lyons uses her superstitious nature against her, claiming that it’s a well-known fact that twins, separated from one another, will if they find out the truth about their origins, immediately die. Heartbroken, Mrs. Johnstone leaves her son, named Edward (Colin Philips), with Mrs. Lyons, and takes his twin, Mickey (Jonathan McInnis), home, telling the other children that Mickey’s twin has died. The two boys grow up at opposite ends of town; Mickey grows up in the rough-and-tumble welfare housing of Liverpool’s rougher neighborhoods, while Edward is raised in privilege. When the two boys run into one another, an instant bond forms, one that follows the two as they grow up and come in and out of one another’s lives. But when the two fall in love with the same woman, the brothers are set on a collision course, ending (as the play began) in tragedy.
Originally created as a school play by amateur composer Willy Russell, Blood Brothers went on to modest success in its original West End run in 1983, but following an Olivier win for Best New Musical and a national tour in 1987, would go on to be the third-longest running musical to ever play on the West End, with more than 10,000 performances under its belt by the time it closed in 2012. And there is something appealing about the deliberately gritty, no-frills feeling the piece strives to evoke. But in the end, the musical squanders that good will with uninspired songs and endless reprises. For a piece that in many productions clocks in at around three hours (two hours and forty minutes here, with an intermission), there’s a surprising amount of recycling—the show’s first song after the overture, “Marilyn Monroe,” has a reprise in the first act, and two repetitions in the second, and by that time, the labored attempts to analogize the action with Monroe’s life and death cause eye rolls—we get it already. The show’s Narrator (Jamall Houston in Imprint’s Production) repeats variations on the same ominous number ad nauseam—for a Greek Chorus, he certainly doesn’t seem to have all that much to say. As for the rest of the songs? They evaporate from memory before walking out of the theater.
The cast struggles mightily to bring life to this lump of clay, with limited success. One bright spot is Lauren LeBlanc’s Mrs. Johnstone; she brings not only a lovely voice to the part, but competent accent work (a definite issue throughout the cast) and a wry, earthy humor. The titular brothers of the piece, Jonathan McInnis and Colin Phillips, should be commended for how gamely they throw themselves into their characters as young children in the first act, but the boys are cloyingly written, and we spend far too much time with them. Both actors are somewhat better served by the material as teens and young adults—Phillips’ privileged character, oblivious to Mickey’s struggles, grates appropriately, though McInnis’ portrayal of Mickey’s eventual mental breakdown was uneven at best. Same goes for Victoria Anne Lee as the love of both men’s lives, Linda; though her accent work is spotty, she brings real heart to Linda’s friendship with both boys, and nuance to her relationship with the boys as men. Jamall Houston has a certain genteel menace as the Narrator, but simply doesn’t have enough to do. Lee Jamison has some nice early moments as Mrs. Lyons, descending swiftly into paranoia after her deal with Mrs. Johnstone, but her character’s eventual mental break felt forced.
The music is credited to a live band (Scott Eckert on piano, Sam Walker on guitar, Rick Norman on bass, and Randy Linberg on drums), although only the keyboardist is visible to the audience, and they are surprisingly successful in not overwhelming the cast in such a small space. Eckert’s piano gamely attempts to replicate the show’s original synthetic sound, for good or for ill. As fitting the musical’s aesthetic, the scenic design for the piece (by Ellen Doyle Mizener) is minimalistic---brick walls on either side of the stage, with two entrances and exits, with a scrim at the back. This is utilized primarily for lighting changes (lighting design by John Aspholm), which were oddly abrupt and jarring at times, though it’s possible that was an intentional artistic choice. Kudos to the fight choreography by Co-Artistic Director Ashley H. White; a confrontation between Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Lyons in the second act was extremely convincing, and carried an air of real threat.
Blood Brothers is the last piece of Imprint’s first season, which had several very successful productions, in particular rock musical Murder Ballad, which shares some gritty DNA with this piece, and Lauren Gunderson’s fun, frothy The Revolutionists, which was a critic’s darling earlier this year. Let’s chalk this up as a rare misstep for a promising new company, and look forward to better days next season.