By Jennifer Johnson
Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers is a heart-wrenching tale of two brothers, bound by blood and by fate, facing class struggle, crime, drugs and love. This award-winning musical, directed by Kevin Lee and presented by the Magnolia Arts Center, is loosely based on the 1844 novella, The Corsican Brothers, by Alexandre Dumas, but with a slightly modern retelling set in 1960-1980, England.
The play opens with Mrs. Johnston (Beth Thatcher May) singing her plight in a heartfelt song. Exquisitely performed, her voice is graceful with a full and sincere range of emotion ebbing from joy to sorrow. Just abandoned by her husband and father of her several children, Mrs. Johnston discovers she is pregnant again — this time with twins. Newly-single and poor, working as a housekeeper she cannot afford one yet alone two more mouths to feed, so she makes a hasty decision to give one of her babies to her wealthy employer, Mrs. Lyons (Alicia Stewart). Stewart gives her role depth by showing at first a subtle softness in her desire to be a mother, then becoming hard with stubborn jealousy at the relationship the housekeeper continues to have with the child she has given up.
Though both mothers try to keep the twins apart, by a twist of fate, the two youths are reunited and become fast friends. One brother, Mickey Johnston (Keith Washer), is born into poverty and exposed to crime, drugs and few opportunities to better himself. By sharp contrast, the other brother, Eddie Lyons (Allen Andrews) is surrounded by a life of privilege and wealth. Despite their differences, they admire each other’s personalities and lifestyles and remain friends for many years until, both falling in love with the same girl, tension grows between them and tragedy unfolds.
Andrews has charm, stage presence, and strength at romantic interludes which befits his character. Washer exhibits great ability at physical comedy, facial expressions, and a strong voice. Both brothers are played with passion and convincing emotion. Lauren Lewis plays Linda, the love interest of the two brothers, with unwavering tenderness. Duane Rhodes plays Mickey’s hooligan older brother, Sammy, with flare and distinction. The narrator, Alan Gill, sets the tumultuous tone of the story with his rich voice drawing the audience into the unavoidable clutches of fate.
The set, designed by Alicia Stewart, mirrors the opposite environments the two brothers come from. The left side is a simple brick front of an urban slum representing Mickey’s lower-class world. The right side represents Eddie’s higher status with its elegant chairs, gold wall hangings and a decorative rug. The middle holds a working lamp post in front of a graffiti-filled brick wall, which is later replaced by a scenic painting of rolling green hills.
Although it is a tragic tale, there are times of happiness set to music. One notable example is the energetic song and dance number, “Kids’ Game,” performed by several cast members. It is full of lively beats and the spirit of carefree childhood that will turn the corners of your mouth up with thoughts of simpler times. All the musical numbers and most of the acting scenes are accompanied by a small live band hidden behind the stage. Directed by Brandon Banks, the music gives the story an appropriate dramatic soap-opera feel. The band: Brandon Banks (Keyboard I), Jamie Gilliam (Keyboard II), Tim Messina (Bass Guitar), Gary Salt (Drums) and Roby Salter (Lead Guitar).
Located at the Music Academy of Eastern Carolina (1400 Red Banks Rd.) in Greenville, see it February 28th and March 1, 2, 7, 8, 9 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door. Get tickets here, by calling 888-MAC-EVNT or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Seating is limited so get there early. Intermission is 15 minutes; refreshments are available.
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