`Blood Brothers' Sinks in Melodrama

BLOOD BROTHERS. Book, music, and lyrics by Willy Russel. Directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson. At the Music Box.

BILLY RUSSELL'S musical "Blood Brothers," for which he wrote the book, music, and lyrics, is a fairy tale, but it certainly doesn't have a happy ending.

This talented playwright, responsible for such plays as "Educating Rita" and "Shirley Valentine," has a knack for telling affecting tales of ordinary people who lift themselves out of their circumstances. That talent is denied to the eponymous figures here, who are inexorably confined to their fate, the victims of England's class system.

The Tony Award-nominated show tells the tale of Mickey and Eddie, twin brothers born to Mrs. Johnstone, a cleaning woman who lacks the financial means to care for them both. A solution is provided by Mrs. Lyons, her wealthy female employer, who is unable to bear children: She will take one of the babies and raise it as her own; her husband, away on a lengthy business trip, will be unaware of the baby's true identity. Mrs. Johnstone reluctantly agrees to this but finds herself unable to disconnect emotion ally, to the point where Mrs. Lyons, desperate to keep her secret, lets her go.

The children are thus raised separately; Mickey in the lower class and Eddie in the upper. But, as the drama would have it, they meet at the age of 7, discover they were born on the same day, and become best friends, or "Blood Brothers." When Mrs. Lyons becomes aware of this, she insists that the family move to the country. But years later, the boys are reunited when Mrs. Johnstone's housing project is torn down and they, too, are relocated.

The boys reclaim their friendship as teenagers; their mutual friend is Linda, who is in love with Eddie. But as time goes on, they are led to take different paths. Eddie becomes a successful barrister, while Mickey, who has married Linda, is trapped in a dead-end job, resorts to crime, is sent to prison, and becomes a drug addict. Inevitably, their destinies lead to a tragic conclusion.

A strong air of fate and superstition hangs over the work, personified by the character of the Narrator, who stands about watching the action, making (and singing) solemn pronouncements, and occasionally playing various subsidiary characters (a fact not unnoticed by Mrs. Johnstone, who wonders why he keeps showing up in various guises). Much is made of the dire consequences of leaving "Shoe Upon the Table," which is also the title of one of the oft-reprised songs.

This show has been running for years in England, where presumably the theme of class consciousness has more resonance than in the United States. But I doubt it will have the same kind of success here. It plays like an overly melodramatic soap opera, and its fantastical elements, heavily underscored with portentous lighting, are less transporting than silly.

Russell's writing, so delicate and finely nuanced in "Shirley Valentine," pounds home every point; using Marilyn Monroe as a metaphor might be gotten away with in one song, but here the device is repeated over and over. The music is similarly heavy-handed and somber. The first-act closer, "Bright New Day," is the only song that brings any sense of joy to the proceedings.

Nonetheless, the show is so eccentric and intense that it is not without interest, and the cast, utilizing many of the London principals, shines. Con O'Neill repeats his Olivier Award-winning performance as Mickey, and the actor delivers a finely detailed performance; he is both hilarious as the younger, raucous version and deeply moving as the troubled older version. Stephanie Lawrence is also particularly powerful, rendering Mrs. Johnstone sympathetic even when she is at her most irritating.

But the obvious contrivances of "Blood Brothers," including a final violent confrontation that is almost farcical, defeats their efforts.

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