My review of the Theater Project's first production of Blood Brothers, back in 1998, has become part of the company's backstage lore. I didn't much like the piece, but acknowledged that the rest of the audience absolutely loved it. Since then, producing director Danny Eaton has cited my double-edged review as an example of the theater's varied appeal. In fact, this show has been one of the most requested for a revival, and he's brought it back to open this season.
So I take my seat on opening night with a mixture of hesitation, anticipation and déjà vu. Will I find the tale of star-crossed brothers more compelling and less annoying than I did last time?
The answer, to spare you the suspense, is no.
I can understand its melodramatic appeal and see why it's been running nonstop in London for going on 25 years, becoming a sort of English Fantasticks. I can the show's critique of the class system and of nurture's impact on nature. But despite generally strong performances here, I still find Willy Russell's musical and its prince-and-pauper storyline heavy-handed, clichéd and unremittingly sentimental.
We see working-class Mrs. Johnstone, already overburdened with children and debts, give one of her newborn baby boys away to genteel, childless Mrs. Lyons, and hear the ominous prophecy that twins separated at birth are sure to die if they once discover who they really are. We see them growing up—Mickey a raggedy slum kid with skinned knees, Edward a well-scrubbed lad with argyle knee socks, who meet by accident and feel an instinctive bond. And we watch their lives inexorably diverge, one boy going off to university and then to civic leadership, the other to the factory, then the dole, then prison.
There are parallels to The Fantasticks here besides the shows' mutual longevity: the Narrator figure, for one, a cynical but sympathetic baritone who bridges the scenes with rhymed couplets foreshadowing dark moments to come. In Beau Allen's performance he's a rather creepy fellow, the Devil as lounge singer, slithering in and out of the action with ponderous pronouncements intended to impart the heft of Greek tragedy.
Three of the leads from the 1998 production reprise their roles here. Ben Ashley and Doug Major bring wit and poignancy to Edward and Mickey, but after 14 years, believing them as young men, much less kids and teenagers, overpowers credulity. As the heartbroken mother who has to disown one of her sons, Christine St. Amant Greene is just as affecting and silver-throated as she was then.
Cate Damon is uptight but touching as the snobby adoptive mum, and Robert Lunde is effective as her go-along husband. Tyler Morrill plays Mickey's bad-boy brother with an edgy anger, Ray Zorin affably fills several supporting roles, and Danielle Connor Saulmon is sassy-smart as the childhood sweetheart who ultimately comes between the twins.
Despite a few stirring melodies, the music is surprisingly downbeat, especially a tediously repetitious metaphorical evocation of Marilyn Monroe. But the protean Mitch Chakour leads a tight four-piece pit (or in this case, balcony) band with panache. Greg Trochlil's brick-façade set subtly contrasts the play's upscale and downtrodden neighborhoods, and Athan Vennell's costumes deftly trace its three-decade timeline.
And sure enough, when it's over, the audience stands up and cheers. Just like old times.
Blood Brothers runs through Oct. 28 at the Majestic Theater, 131 Elm St., West Springfield. 747-7797, majestictheater.com.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.