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Book, Music, and Lyrics by Willy Russell

Imprint Theatreworks

Directed by Joe Messina
Music Director – Scott Eckert
Stage Manager – Devon Miler
Scenic Design – Ellen Mizener
Costume Design – Jessie Wallace
Lighting Design – John Aspholm
Sound Design – Riley Larson
Choreography – Victoria Lee

Mrs. Johnstone – Lauren LeBlanc
Mickey – Jonathan McInnis
Edward – Colin Phillips
Narrator – Jamall Houston
Linda – Victoria Anne Lee
Sammy – Justin A. Duncan
Mrs. Lyons – Lee Jamison
Mr. Lyons/Ensemble – John Wenzel
Ensemble – Kaylee Killingsworth
Ensemble – Quinn Angell
Ensemble – Madeleine Morris
Ensemble – Joseph House

Piano – Scott Eckert
Guitar – Sam Walker
Bass – Rick Norman
Drums – Randy Linberg

Reviewed Performance: 10/26/2018

Reviewed by Carol St George, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

For someone who frets over the vulnerability of performers on stage, it’s comforting to spend an evening in a small theater where you can sit back as a well-written, well-acted, and well-sung musical unfolds before you. That’s how it was at Friday night’s performance of Blood Brothers, presented by Imprint Theatreworks at The Bathhouse Cultural Center.

Not that the story itself is comforting. It’s compelling, moving, funny, and sad. The musical delivers timeless themes and biting observations of class tensions, gun violence, and mental illness. Set in Liverpool during the 1960s to 80s, Blood Brothers is the story of twins separated as infants, one raised in poverty, the other in affluence. Each is shaped by his own circumstances, yet they are pulled into each other’s orbits and, unaware of their relationship, become best friends. The two, Mickey and Eddie, are mutually attracted by the other’s differences. Eddie is fascinated by the street-wise roughness of the impoverished Mickey, and Mickey longs for Eddie’s cushy life. The theme of longing courses through the story. Mickey’s mother Mrs. Johnstone longs for a better life. Mrs. Lyons, Eddie’s adoptive mother, already in possession of a better life, has longed for a baby, but from the minute one lands in her lap, she longs to escape all reminders of where he came from. Ultimately, the brothers’ closeness becomes their undoing, as both grow to love the same woman, with tragic results.

Longing and the urge to escape are ideas playwright and composer Willy Russell revisited often. Perhaps best known for the plays Educating Rita (1981) and Shirley Valentine (1988), both of which became critically acclaimed films, Russell has his protagonists striving to change their situations. Rita, a working-class woman, decides to pursue an English education, and Shirley, a housewife, escapes her mundane existence with an exotic Greek holiday. The writer drew inspiration from his own self-made life. He dropped out of school at age 15 to become a hairdresser and then returned to school at age 20, eventually becoming a teacher before exploring his interest in writing plays. Music and songwriting had been in his blood since childhood. All his stories honored the working class. Creating a musical about class distinctions was only natural.

Blood Brothers revolves around the central character, Mrs. Johnstone, the twins’ mother, who recalls the events that have led to the fate of her children. Her character is sensitively portrayed by Lauren LeBlanc, whose lovely voice expresses the warmth and poignant sadness of a mother remembering her loss. LeBlanc is at ease in the role that demands an extraordinary amount of time on stage, and she never fails to elicit our sympathy. In Blood Brothers’ long and successful history (2017 was the 30th anniversary of the Blood Brothers UK Tour), Mrs. Johnstone has been played by the likes of Helen Reddy, Carole King, and Petula Clark. She tells the story through her eyes, whereas the Narrator, played by Jamall Houston, tells us how to interpret it. He not only informs us of the story’s chronology, but also acts as the moral compass (“The Devil’s Got Your Number”). Houston’s Narrator is authoritative and all-knowing, his strong voice carving a distinctive presence above the fray.

Mickey and Eddie, played by Jonathan McInnis and Colin Phillips, respectively, are equally endearing as products of their upbringing. Mickey is the tortured one, and his arc from happy-go-lucky kid to deranged criminal is truly gut-wrenching in the hands of McInnis. We don’t know whom to blame for his derailment, but it certainly isn’t him. Colin Phillips plays the pampered Eddie as a compassionate, humble being. He, too, is unfulfilled, smothered by his overbearing mother, Mrs. Lyons (Lee Jamison) and in love with Mickey’s wife Linda (Victoria Anne Lee).

Joe Messina’s direction brings out the authentic humanity of the characters, and he keeps the action well-paced with tightly synchronized movements from the ensemble. Victoria Lee’s choreography of the ensemble is crisp and even. Jessie Wallace’s costumes aptly suggest the time span from the 1960s to the early 80s without drawing attention away from the actors wearing them. The scenic design by Ellen Mizener is spare, with just the suggestion of buildings framing the stage, but all that is needed in this small theater. After all, the characters are the main attraction, and the set as well as John Aspholm’s lighting maintain our focus on them. Riley Larson’s sound design balances the singers and the musicians well. I only wished LeBlanc’s mic were turned up so her voice could come more forward. The four-piece band, under the direction of Scott Eckert on piano played with assurance, and the ensemble delivered a smoothly blended sound.

When Blood Brothers ran in the West End, it won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. More than 30 years later, the music is still memorable, and the story is still relevant. Blood Brothers is the final show of the inaugural season of the new Imprint Theatreworks company, which was recently dubbed “DFW’s hottest new theatre company” by Broadway World. This company is certainly one to watch. If you haven’t yet seen its work, Blood Brothers is an excellent way to get acquainted.

Blood Brothers
The Bath House Cultural Center
Runs through November 10, 2018