Blood Brothers, Willy Russell’s heartbreakingly tragic musical about the death of twins separated at birth, rose like one of its titular characters from humble beginnings to highbrow success..
Known for his depiction of strong, struggling, working-class women (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), Russell originally wrote and presented Blood Brothers as a school play. It premiered at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1983 before being developed into one of London’s most popular musicals, running for nearly 25 years in the West End. With more than 10,000 performances, it comes in third for London’s longest running musical, behind only Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.
Its shorter Broadway run from 1993 to 1995 resulted in six Tony nominations. The show has been a vehicle for performers as diverse as Petula Clark, Carole King, Kiki Dee, David and Shaun Cassidy, Russell Crowe, Helen Reddy, and Melanie (Sporty Spice) Chisholm.
Quite a pedigree for Theo Ubique’s production at the No Exit Cafe in Rogers Park to live up to, which it does handily.
Under the outstanding music direction of Jeremy Ramey, the ensemble and 4-piece orchestra are incredible, filling the intimate studio space with haunting melodies and lush harmonies. Russell’s light rock/pop score is full of memorable pieces that patrons will find themselves humming days later: “Bright New Day,” “Easy Terms” and the emotionally charged “Tell Me It’s Not True” are stand-outs, but there’s not a weak one to be found.
Director Fred Anzevino makes great use of a sparse set, relying on the cast and the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks. The minimalist technique works well, and allows the focus to be on the action and the story and what it can tell us about nature vs. nurture.
Two twins are separated at birth; one is raised by his impoverished birth mother, the other adopted by an upper class couple. In what ways will they be alike? In what ways will their lives differ? Since the show begins with the bodies of the twins lying dead onstage, there isn’t much mystery about how it will all end; but that doesn’t matter at all – it’s that good of a show. The chilling beauty of the very first sung notes compels the audience to stay and watch it unfold.
Tell me it’s not true,
Say it’s just a story,
Say it’s just a dream,
Say it’s just a scene,
From an old movie of years ago,
From an old movie of Marilyn Monroe
Anglophiles will happily find many stock elements of British theater here: the lauding of working class values, a Dickensian view of the evils of the system, a forbidden relationship between social unequals, an all-knowing narrator, as well as adorable Liverpudlian and Oxbridge accents (kudos to dialect coach Adam Goldstein – not a Dick van Dyke in the bunch). But there’s so much more to enjoy beyond having an excuse to use the word Liverpudlian.
The story is set in Liverpool, in the early 1960s, against the familiar British motif of class struggle. Deserted by her womanizing husband, Mrs. Johnstone (Kyrie Anderson) already has seven children, and is expecting twins. She cleans house for the well-to-do Mrs. Lyons, (Victoria Olivier) who has been trying unsuccessfully to have a child of her own with her husband. Mrs. Lyons offers a solution to their complementary problems: she’ll adopt one of the twins. With Mr. Lyons conveniently away on business for many months, the scheme will be her and Mrs. Johnstone’s little secret — no one has to know. And, Mrs. Lyons explains, Mrs. Johnstone will see the adopted twin every day at work. In desperation, believing that at least one of her children will be given a better chance at a good life, Mrs. Johnstone reluctantly agrees, and they both swear to the secret on a Bible. As soon as the twins are born, Mrs. Lyons takes one of the boys, and Mrs. Johnstone instantly regrets her decision, but keeps to the arrangement. She names her son Mickey (Charlie Mann) and Mrs. Lyons names her twin Edward (Cody Jolly). After a few months, Mrs. Lyons fires Mrs. Johnstone for doting too much on baby Edward at work. Faced with never seeing her son again, Mrs. Johnstone threatens to reveal their secret to the community. Mrs. Lyons warns her of the superstition that if twins separated at birth ever learn the truth, they will both immediately die.
They say 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. Johnstone.
Because if you do, you will kill them
The belief in this superstition, and many others referred to in the story (putting new shoes on the table is apparently also a bad idea) brings up another philosophical question: can superstitions become self-fulfilling prophecies? Are Mickey and Eddie tied to their fate, subject to circumstances beyond their control, or do they have a say in their own future?
Naturally, nearly eight years after the women go their separate ways, Mickey and Eddie meet while playing in the street. Regardless of their different backgrounds, they form an immediate bond when they learn of their shared birthday. They declare themselves “blood brothers, “ vowing lifelong friendship. Attempts by their mothers to keep them apart are repeatedly foiled, and their friendship continues into adolescence and young adulthood. As they get older, the differences in their socioeconomic situations become more defined even as their fates further entwine. Circumstances and choices keep drawing the two back toward each other, across the class divide, until the sad prophecy is fulfilled.
They’re a pair, they go together.
As the devilish Narrator, Jordan Phelps is a fantastic guide, funny and creepy and yet kinda sexy. How does he do that? (A hint might be found in an overheard conversation between two female patrons discussing how much Phelps resembles a young Russell Crowe, yet is an infinitely better singer. Accurate on both points, ladies.)
Shows that require adults to play children are challenging, but Mann and Jolly are as delightfully convincing as fidgety seven- (nearly eight-) year-olds as they are as rebellious teens and eventually grown men. The two reveal moments of unconditional loyalty and playful rivalry that make it bittersweet to watch their friendship develop, to watch best friends find and lose and rediscover each other.
Anzevino’s direction and Maggie Portman’s choreography provide space to allow a fully integrated ensemble to make specific and relatable choices that live up to scrutiny of an intimate setting. A good example is the staging of Act 2’s “Miss Jones,” especially in the moments between Whitney Rappana and Darren Hill, as Miss Jones realizes she’s writing her own pink slip. Cullen Rogers and Dana Anderson are great as Sammy and Linda. Olivier’s descent into guilt-ridden madness is fun to watch. And audiences should keep their eyes on Ryan Armstrong and Ryan Dooley for some comic relief throughout.
Of course, the audience’s heart is with Anderson’s long-suffering Mrs. Johnstone the entire time. The actor’s voice is the essence of her character: strong, sad, and hopeful against all odds, with a well-worn and winning sweetness. She invites the audience to live every second with her, from living on the never never to celebrating a brand new day.
And whether the magic of the show is innate, part of its very nature wherever it plays, or whether it is nurtured by the top talent it has always attracted, well, in the end it doesn’t really matter. It’s that good.
Blood Brothers plays through November 15 at Theo Ubique at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $34-$39 ($25 additional for dinner) and may be purchased online here. Theo Ubique gets its name from the ancient Greek word meaning “god” (as in a universal force), and the Latin word for “everywhere.” For a beautiful explanation of how that name reflects the theater’s mission, and for a wonderful introduction to how Cabaret style theater brings the audience closer to a story’s deeper meaning, visit the theater’s About Page. Patrons wanting the complete Theo Ubique experience can enjoy dinner in the No Exit Cafe, served by the actors before the show, with dessert during intermission. Dinner reservations are accepted at the same time as the ticket order. No need to worry about parking; Theo Ubique offers free parking in two area lots, within two blocks of the No Exit Cafe; shuttle service is also available for nighttime performances from a third lot, 10 blocks from the theatre.