For at least the third time in the last two decades, the musical Blood Brothers is being staged at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). Though the show isn't likely to appear on anyone's top-ten list of all-time best musicals, one can see why this prestigious musical theater program would come back to it: It has a number of meaty roles, allows students to incorporate British accents and play characters of multiple (and changing) ages, and sing a somewhat atypical score. CCM's team and cast is top notch, as usual, and provide a very praiseworthy production.
Blood Brothers, which is loosely based on a 1844 book titled "The Corsican Brothers" by Alexandre Dumas, tells the foreboding tale of fraternal twins who are separated at birth, and their struggling birth mother. It chronicles their birth in the late 1950s/early 1960s through young adulthood in the 1980s. One twin is raised in poverty, the other in wealth. They grow up as friends, never knowing their connection until the very end. Eventually, their differing social status and love for the same girl results in tragedy. The show debuted in London in 1983 (and has become a British staple) and was nominated for several Tony Awards when it premiered on Broadway in 1993.
The book, lyrics, and score are by Willy Russell. Mr. Russell's story effectively uses narration to provide additional information on the social and economic struggles and impact of varying decisions and situations. He uses a narrator to convey the passage of time and to provide some dramatic suspense by inserting several superstitions into the story as well. The plot is intriguing and provides for some theatrical antics and pathos. Though a musician, Mr. Russell is mostly known as a playwright (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine). The songs are less sophisticated and complex than that of most musicals, in both music and lyrics (which feature a fair share of false rhymes), but are a good fit for the personal, blue collar feel of the primary story, and melodically catchy. The best songs are "Easy Terms" (chronicling Mrs. Johnstone's realization that she has to give one of her newborn twins away), the optimistic "Bright New Day", "I'm Not Saying A Word", and the finale, "Tell Me It's Not True".
At CCM, the talented students shine in their roles without exception. As Mrs. Johnstone, Hannah Kornfield effectively conveys an array of emotions from joy to desperation, as well as the inner conflict of a mother living with a secret. She also sings many of the show's best songs with ease and skill. Thomas Knapp (Mickey) gets lots of laughs in his early scenes as the twin his mother keeps, supplies nicely nuanced acting choices, and is vocally impressive. Karl Amundson (Eddie) does a great job displaying the uptight, proper temperament of a rich and protected youth, and sings his act two anthem beautifully. As Linda, Kaela O'Connor adeptly conveys much through non-verbal acting choices, and is a great feminine foil to the two "boys" throughout. Knapp, Amundson, and O'Connor each display versatility and talent playing roles that age from seven through adulthood. These three and the ensemble members who portray other children do a wonderful job of capturing the stress-free exuberance of childhood play. Tyler Huckstep provides great vocals as the Narrator and is an appropriately ominous presence from start to finish. As Mrs. Lyons, Brianna Barnes does well bringing out the manipulative side of this harsh character, and supplies strong vocals. A lot is asked of the cast (leads, supporting, and chorus) in this production and they do an excellent job in all respects.
Director Vince DeGeorge has a few minor missteps (one of which is giving away too much in his opening scene), but overall provides great direction to the piece. There is an aptly stark and intense tone throughout, as well as great blocking, some very effective humor, and good use of the black box space. Steve Goers not only supplies spirited piano accompaniment, but also some wonderful and effective choral arrangements to augment the single piano and provide a richer and fuller supporting musical sound.
There's really no set design for this production; it instead uses lots of chairs and small props, which suffice in the black box setting. The lighting by Nick Saiki and sound by Ryan Bode have very nice moments and are skillfully rendered. The costumes by Tommy Cobau are handsome, but feel a bit modern for some of the ensemble. The show does take place over a span of over 20 years, so the ambiguity is allowable, but could have been more of the general time period.
Blood Brothers is a good piece to stretch actors and an interesting show for theatergoers as well. CCM provides a very good production in line with what audiences have come to expect from this institution when it comes to musical theater. A talented young cast, professional direction, creative musical direction, and apt design elements make this a show to catch if you can find a ticket. The musical plays at CCM through October 11, 2014.
On a related noteCCM's production of Blood Brothers wasn't the only opportunity to see the show this weekend in the Cincinnati area. The musical was also staged by the Greater Hamilton Civic Theatre. This community theater production boasted an excellent performance by Katelyn Fox as Mrs. Johnstone, satisfying work by the rest of the cast, an intriguing set design, and solid direction by Ryan Heinrich.