The arrival of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers in Los Angeles is big news indeed. Though the musical ran 840 performances on Broadway in the mid-1990s, and has been playing continuously on London’s West End for over two decades, it’s been years since there’s been a fully staged L.A. production offering local audiences the chance to see what has made Blood Brothers such a British (and international) phenomenon. 

The wait is over.

A set-in-the-U.S.A. Blood Brothers has just opened in Sherman Oaks, and while the Americanization of Russell’s quintessentially British story is problematic, the production is blessed with tremendous performances by its three leading actors.

Blood Brothers begins ominously, with two young men lying dead on the street, and an onstage narrator asking, “Did you hear the story of the Johnston twins, as like each other as two new pins, of one womb born, on the self same day, how one was kept, and one given away?  And did you hear how the Johnstons died, never knowing that they shared one name, until the day they died, when a mother cried, ‘My own dear sons lie slain!’”

Life has not treated Mrs. Johnston well. Married young to a husband who told her she was “sexier than Marilyn Monroe,” Mrs. Johnston soon found herself 25 and looking like 42, the mother of two children, and abandoned “for a girl they say looks a bit like Marilyn Monroe.”  Barely getting by on her cleaning job at the home of wealthy Mrs. Lyons, Mrs. Johnston learns that she is pregnant with twins, and when she gives her childless employer the news, Mrs. Lyons offers her the perfect solution to her money problems.  She’ll take one of the twins, pass it off to her away-on-business husband as their own, and Mrs. Johnston will only have one new mouth to feed. Reluctantly, Mrs. Johnston agrees, swearing on the Bible never to tell a soul, but only on condition that she be allowed to see the child every day. 

Following the birth of the fraternal twin boys, Mrs. Lyons realizes that she’s none too comfortable with Mrs. Johnston’s constant hovering over her adopted child, and convinces her husband that they should move to the country.  When Mrs. Johnston protests that this was not their bargain and threatens to tell someone what they’ve done, Mrs. Lyons makes up a superstition about twins secretly parted.  She tells Mrs. Johnston that if either twin learns that he was one of a pair, “they shall both immediately die.  You won’t tell anyone about this Mrs. Johnston, because if you do, you will kill them!

Naturally, the two boys do meet eventually, around the age of eight, and upon learning that they were born on the same date, immediately decide to become blood brothers.  Wealthy Edward is fascinated by rough-and-tumble Mickey, who dubs him “Eddie,” and Mickey is equally enthralled by the well-spoken, well-dressed rich boy, and they determine to be friends for life.  If only there were a way to prevent Mrs. Lyons’ curse from claiming them both… 

The pivotal role of Mrs. Johnston requires an actress of power and a singer with a voice to break hearts, and in Pamela Taylor, director Bryan Rasmussen has lucked out in finding both. Taylor, excellent in last season’s Jesus Christ Superstar, has just the right earthiness for Mrs. Johnston, with soulful eyes and a voice to match. Only a heart of stone could fail to be moved by her final rendition of “Tell Me It’s Not True.” 

The roles of the titular blood brothers have been equally well filled. As Mickey, Eduardo Enrikez follows a number of fine supporting roles with the lead he deserves, and does absolutely sensational work.  His 7-year-old Mickey is a charmer if there ever was one, and Enrikez perfectly captures the teenage strut of Mickey as a 17-year-old.  When adult Mickey descends into a despair only magnified by the pills he’s been prescribed, Enrikez’s pain is heartbreaking.  Recent East Coast transplant Ryan Nealy is equally wonderful as Eddie, his prim-and-proper (but adorable) rich kid the ideal counterpoint to Enrikez’s spunky street urchin. Enrikez and Nealy are both excellent singers, with Nealy getting the show’s prettiest song, “I’m Not Saying A Word.”  The two have great chemistry together, and because we know how the story will end, their scenes together have an extra poignancy.

Fans of The Waltons will be pleased to see Judy Norton (who began her nine-year stint as Mary Ellen while still a teen) as Mrs. Lyons, and displaying a lovely singing voice in “My Child.” Sita Young is a cute and feisty Linda (object of both twins’ affections), Nicolas Mongiardo-Cooper makes for an appropriately brutish Sammy (Mickey’s juvenile delinquent older brother), and Mueen Jahan does amusing double duty as the milkman and Mr. Lyons.  Ensemble members Debra Arnott and Jess Busterna do good work in a variety of roles.

Finally, darkly handsome (and vocally talented) Gil Darnell is a seductively sinister narrator, the salt-and-pepper Australian the only cast member to sport a British accent, which leads me to comment on the show’s awkward Americanization.

Blood Brothers is as British a show as Carousel is American, and to set it in some unspecified part of America while changing little of the original dialog, full of Briticisms, is akin to a London staging of Carousel in some unspecified English seaport with British-accented sailors singing “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.”  Having American characters talk about “piles” (hemorrhoids) and “sweets” (candy) and “the dole” (unemployment) and using particularly British figures of speech like “She says I haven’t got to see you” (=I’m not allowed to see you) makes Russell’s dialog seem strangely stilted, and places an extra burden on the actors to maintain a natural quality.  Also, without the contrast between the Lyons’ upper class English accent and the Johnston’s very different lower class dialect, much of the importance of Blood Brothers’ focus on social class is lost.  (Imagine staging My Fair Lady with Henry Higgins and Eliza speaking with the same standard American accent. It can’t, or at least shouldn’t be done.)

I also wonder about the advisability of occasional doubling the Narrator as an ensemble member. It’s disconcerting, to say the least, to see the menacing black-garbed taleteller suddenly begin singing and dancing gaily along with his castmates, then just as suddenly go back to the doom-and-gloom Narrator.

That being said, thanks to the memorable performances of Taylor, Enrikez, and Nealy, much of Blood Brothers’ power remains intact, and despite our knowledge of the story’s tragic ending, it still comes as a devastating shock when gunshots ring out killing two characters we’ve come to care about over the course of the show’s (a bit too long) nearly three-hour running time.

Brian Paul Mendoza’s musical staging is fun and bouncy, especially when the “8-year-olds” are dancing. Musical director Carson Schutze (on keyboards) leads a fine three-piece band (with Nicholas Sobko on soprano sax, alto sax, clarinet and flute, and Tom Zygmont on drums and percussion). Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound design makes for a good mix of voices and accompaniment. Derrick McDaniel’s lighting is very good, despite a few opening night rough edges. Scenic designer Victoria Profitt has done particularly fine work despite a limited budget, Profitt’s set managing to suggest both the interior and exterior of the Lyons’ home, the Johnstons’ poor neighborhood, and various other locations on a relatively small stage. I particularly liked the adult-sized clothes that costume designer Suzanne Klein created for the grownups playing children.

Had the production retained its original setting and accents, this Blood Brothers would achieve its full impact. Even as is, Willy Russell’s story remains a powerful one, and many of his melodies will stick with you even after the lights have dimmed.  Under Rasmussen’s direction, Taylor, Enrikez, and Nealy perform with undeniable heart, soul, and voice, and whenever they are center stage, Blood Brothers can’t help but soar.

Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

–Steven Stanley
October 18, 2008
Photos: Ed Krieger

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