Plot of soapy 'Blood Brothers' just doesn't wash or spin dry

April 06, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The opening image in "Blood Brothers" is of projected red star-burst designs that dissolve, or more precisely, bleed, down the screen.

It's an image that typifies the lack of subtlety in this downer of a British pop musical about a pair of ill-fated twins. Written and composed by Willy Russell, it continues at the Lyric Opera House through Sunday.

Essentially a three-hour soap opera with music, "Blood Brothers" encompasses sub- jects including unwanted pregnancy, mental illness, crime, drug addiction and class struggle. Not that there's anything wrong with such serious topics. Musicals have certainly been made of stranger stuff (Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," for example). But there should be a point, or a sense of catharsis, or at least an empathetic character or two.

Here there are just suds.

Petula Clark, as the twins' birth mother, Mrs. Johnstone, comes closest to achieving empathy -- no small accomplishment since the Narrator (Mark McGrath) describes her early on as a mother with a heart of stone.

As this suggests, Mrs. John- stone is significantly different from the working-class heroines in Russell's two other hit shows, "Shirley Valentine" and "Educating Rita." Instead of rising above her circumstances, Mrs. Johnstone is trapped, and eventually severely punished, by them.

A poor, hard-working cleaning lady with seven children who subsequently becomes pregnant with twins, Mrs. Johnstone is coerced by her barren, wealthy employer (Priscilla Quinby) into secretly giving her one of the twins.

I won't spoil the outcome -- even though the show is told in flashback, so audiences are aware of it in the first scene. Suffice it to say that the twins -- played by David Cassidy and Tif Luckinbill become best friends, unaware of their consanguinity, and that the friendship doesn't end well.

What Russell is trying to say is difficult and disturbing to fathom. Is he saying adoption is doomed, and birth mothers should keep their children, no matter the hardship? Or is he saying class boundaries are impossible to cross? Or that superstitions are grave omens to be heeded at all costs?

The element of superstition shrouds the show in fatalism, which is reinforced by the heavy-handed staging of co-directors Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson. The Narrator repeatedly stands over the two mothers and issues threatening warnings; a sinister chord sounds at the hint of anything ominous; and a song based on an obscure superstition, "Shoes Upon the Table," is reprised four times.

The Narrator, by the way, isn't only saddled with a grim reaper role. He also has to recite rhymed narration that sounds like a malevolent greeting card. Despite this, McGrath gives one of the production's best performances, both vocally and in terms of keeping his character from becoming a ghoul.

Strong-voiced Cassidy also fares well. Equally skillful is Yvette Lawrence, who plays the girl both twins love -- the show's only other slightly empathetic character.

"Blood Brothers," by the way, features an abundance of guns -- toys and the real thing -- and virtual gushers of spit. After a while I found myself wondering how the actors were able to spew such copious quantities. Or maybe I was just trying not to think about what this show seemed to be saying.

'BLOOD BROTHERS'

Where: Lyric Opera House

When: 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday

Tickets: $20 to $45

Call: (410) 494-2712

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