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Blood Brothers: A Piece of English Theatre, Review

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Blood Brothers at the Majestic in West Springfield, MA: Review

Music and Drama Combined in a Tale of Class Issues

Ben Ashley, Cate Damon and Robert Lunde in a scene from "Blood Brothers" at West Springfield's Majestic Theater. Photo Courtesy of the Majestic TheaterThe recent production of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield, is a musical that captures the essence of how important it is that society not divide lower and upper class children from playing with each other. It takes place in England where a poor mother named Mrs. Johnstone, played by Christine Greene, plays the mother of seven. She is due to have another child, but is worried about how to financially support it, her husband having left her to tend for the family. She is sympathetic, and sings a song of how she used to dance, and how everyone would say that she was “just like Marilyn Monroe.” She is a simple woman whose desire for a lover is only outdone by her need to take care of her family, and she has the best voice in the show.

And it turns out that Mrs. Johnstone has twins on the way. Burdened by this, she reports it to Mrs. Lyons, for whom she is acting as a maid. The actress’ name who plays Mrs. Lyons is Cate Damon. She is incapable of having a child, and so the two strike a deal that the child will be given to the rich woman. But the two twins must never know that the other one exists unless as English superstition states, something terrible will befall them. With much sadness, Mrs. Johnstone allows it, setting the stage for a tragedy the likes of which is uncommon for musicals.

From the start, we get the sense that Mrs. Lyons is going to be a suffocating mother. The actress does a great job conveying the spookiness of a sociopathic woman who has dislikes for the poor. Her face is very sheik and capable of conveying a birdlike attentiveness. This, juxtaposed against Mrs. Johnstone who is very open, and whose kids are loud ruffians sets the dynamics which paint the social picture of the play.

From the start we sympathize with the poor mother who is all alone as a parent and fear the rich mother who is married and well-protected from all dangers in life. A consistent character in the play is the narrator, played by Beau Allen, a smirking Jack-Nicholson lookalike who warns the audience of oncoming trouble with the recurring song: “The Devil’s Got Your Number.” It was unique the way they used the devil as a symbol for badness as many productions shy away from using religion.

We are introduced to the son who Mrs. Johnstone kept, Mickey. He is played by Doug Major and is a slightly goofy kid whose clothing attire is ripped pants and a sagging shirt. He spends his days playing games on the street, using fake guns to engage in the type of mischief that most of us did as kids. It is all they have to entertain themselves in this case. And then Edward, the other twin, played by Benjamin Ashley comes onto the set and meets Mickey, neither knowing that they are each other’s twins as they are non-identical. Edward offers Mickey “a sweet” and when Edward ends up giving him all his sweets, Mickey asks “are you soft? Usually I have to ask a hundred times before I can get one, and even then I don’t usually get one!” Edward is dressed in high argyle socks, fancy shorts, an oxford sweatshirt, and the two are opposites who find each other fascinating. They decided to become blood brothers, but when Mrs. Lyons finds out, the two are without explanation forbidden from each other’s company. But of course, the two find ways to see each other by sneaking around their parents; it is like a Romeo and Juliet of class prejudice. The “bromance” is split up when Mrs. Lyons decides to move her family to the country where Mickey can’t find her family.

But of course that is not the end of it as Mrs. Johnstone finally can afford a house away from the slums she has always lived in. The two boys end up reuniting, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Lyons who attempts to stab Mrs. Johnstone, but is disarmed. The pathetic intensity of Mrs. Lyon’s insatiable desire to make Edward all her own is apparent all throughout the play, the key to unlocking the impending disaster.

One of the most poignant parts of the play came during a song in which Mickie and Edward take turns singing about how they wish they could be like each other. Mickie is good-natured in his jealousy of Edward’s ability to speak with proper grammar and good vocabulary while Edward is jealous of Mickie’s wild side. This back and forth duet informed us of how class differences can be envied from both angles, of the possibility for cooperation.

Mickie ends up getting married to his childhood love, after the urging of Edward who is much more smooth, better looking, and well-dressed. All is well with their friendship. But then when Edward returns from University for a vacation, he finds Mickie in a desperation that can’t be fixed. Mickie has lost his job and when Edward attempts to cheer him up by saying he has money and that they should go and have a good time, Mickie loses his temper. He says that Edward never had to grow up, and that while he doesn’t blame him for that, since it is due to his class, he does not want to be friends with him anymore. And so the difference between their classes finally rears its head and splits them apart, without need of help from Mrs. Lyons.

Mickie’s brother Sammy, played by Tyler Morrill, offers Mickie the sketchy chance to rob a bank. Mickie accepts it, moving from the play guns of childhood to the real guns of criminality. In the earlier parts of the play, we saw that Sammy was a bully who controlled the playground of the streets. It was neat to see this character fleshed out as an adult. And true to nature, Sammy is out of control and ends up shooting someone in the bank during the robbery. Mickie ends up left behind at the crime scene, and has to do seven years in jail.

As things continue to go downhill for Mickie, things stay fine for Edward. Mickie became addicted to pills while he was in jail, pills which make him not have to deal with the pain of his depression. And so the play takes on the edge of a soap opera. Mickie’s wife says that he has to quit the pills or else she can’t be with him. Mickie decides to quit, but not before he catches Edward and his wife in a lover’s embrace. Mickie decides to get revenge on Edward, running into a lecture he is giving with a gun. And in the midst of Mickie’s ranting anger towards Edward, Mrs. Johnstone breaks in and admits to the two that they are twins.

“I could have been him!” Mickie yells in disbelief, and accidentally shoots his twin brother.

Mickie is then shot by the police officer who had been instructing him to drop his weapon. As the two twins lay dead on the floor, Mrs. Johnstone sings a sad song: “Tell me it’s not true/Tell me it’s just a story,” in a conclusion that had many in the audience breaking down to tears.

Blood Brothers encapsulated English culture very well. And I admired it for not assuming that it had to have a happy ending, but instead warning us the whole time that it would be a tragedy. The writer, Willy Russell, had a knack for mixing dialogue with songs so that there was never too much time involved with songs, but instead a healthy mix of regular scenes and music. The band behind stage did a remarkable job in their performance, led by Mitch Chakour, a brilliant pianist whose ensemble sat above the stage in plain sight, rocking out in perfect timing to the singing, and a legitimate part of the performance. It was a rather long performance, but was juicy and consistent the whole way through, and featuring brilliant acting.

Ezra Prior is a Contributor to The Free George. Photo Courtesy of the Majestic Theater

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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