Cast shines in dark `Blood Brothers'

Review

April 05, 2001|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

What makes us truly us?

Is it an innate self that comes to the fore to define human beings, or are we, ultimately, the sum total of our interactions with others?

Every other deep philosophical question you can think of has been posed on the musical stage at one time or another, so why should this nature vs. nurture controversy be any different?

That conundrum sits at the core of "Blood Brothers," the Willy Russell musical in production at Colonial Players of Annapolis.

While full of humorous moments, "Blood Brothers" is the raw, dark tale of the Johnstone twins, born to a divorced, working-class mother in northern England during the 1950s, and separated at birth.

Mickey stays with his hard-working, well-intentioned mother, who does her best to impart dignity to their lives despite the hardships thrown their way by membership in Britain's social underclass.

Mrs. Johnstone signs Edward, the other twin, over to her affluent employer, who desperately wants a child of her own.

Even as her wish is granted, though, the upper-crust mother is seized by a paranoia that metastasizes steadily and winds up contributing to the calamitous violence that completes the tragedy.

Though "Blood Brothers" packs a wallop, it is far from flawless thematically and structurally. The insight that social divisions can prove lethal is unarguable, but the presumed inevitability of these fraternal antagonisms might wind up striking non-Marxists as a heavy-handed, rather contrived call to class warfare.

The score has some evocative moments, but songs that don't bear repeated listening are reprised to the point of distraction. (One more "Marilyn Monroe" chorus would have had me yanking out my hair in clumps.)

Still, "Blood Brothers" is eminently worth doing well, which it most certainly is, at the wonderfully intimate theater just off State Circle in Annapolis. Director Mickey Handwerger has assembled a first-rate cast, and remarkable moments occur all over Colonial's minimalist set.

Anchoring the production are Dean Davis and Vincent Musgrave, who are quite extraordinary as the separated twins whose lives intertwine so wonderfully, yet so sadly. Both reach back to childhood to become an astonishingly vivid pair of 7-year-olds. They are extremely funny as young teens whose hormones begin raging, and each arrives at his adult socioeconomic destination with an empathic understanding of where he's been.

Davis' destructive slide into drug abuse is realistic and more than a little scary, while Musgrave creates a character so honest and affable that it's downright hard to watch him fall victim to the sad fate telegraphed so hauntingly in the play's opening montage.

Duncan Hood enters fully into the narrator's role, reciting the lines of ominous verse appended by the playwright to underscore the social tragedy unfolding on stage. Hood also does well (again and again) with his big song, "Shoes Upon the Table," though pitch problems crop up that might have been offset by fuller harmonies from the functional but small ensemble (two keyboards and drums) accompanying the singers.

The show's female energy is also strong. Wendy Baird Weideman is the indefatigable Mrs. Johnstone who does so much for her children, yet receives so little in return. Her facial energy can be slack at times, but every line is delivered with dignity and moral force. It's a fine performance.

Sue Bell is warm and touching as Linda, the girl befriended and loved by both boys, and the gifted Diane Hood will surely give you the creeps as the angst-ridden mother whose personal and ideological pathologies wind up destroying so many lives in this sad allegory.

"Blood Brothers" plays at Colonial Players of Annapolis Thursday to Sunday through April 14. Call 410-268-7373 for reservations.

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