“Did y’hear the story of the Johnston twins?” is the famous opening line of Blood Brothers now playing at Kensington Town Hall presented by the British Players. You might be more familiar with the tale about a crazy barber on Fleet Street (also playing in these parts), but these young lads are just as entertaining, and maybe a tad bit less bloody. If you haven’t heard the story, then unlike the twins, you’re in luck.
The British Players bring panache to their shows, and they come through beautifully with this treasured piece, starting with casting. Mom Johnston played with verve by Lauren-Nicole Gabel is already saddled with too many mouths to feed only to find herself with two more on the way, just as the dad pops out of the picture. She works as a maid for the well-heeled, upper-crust Mrs. Lyons, a regal and frosty Lisa Singleton, who yearns for a baby. When Mrs. Lyons dreams up the solution to everyone’s problems, she presents it with a forceful “Why not? Everybody wins” attitude. Once she gets the hesitant OK, she grabs one of the babies and raises it as her own. Nobody knows about the switch (suspended belief is part of the charm), the women are sworn to secrecy, and the boys grow up in different economic households unaware of their biological connection. What could go wrong?
The two women’s voices are strong with clear lyrics, and Gabel shows an emotional depth as she grapples with her wretched decision resulting from her limited social standing. And that’s the draw that’s kept the show running for years. What happens when twins are placed in different social environments? Nature vs. nurture? It’s a sociologist’s dream experiment, in this case complete with fun characters and memorable musical score.
Rob Milanic and Jonathan Udlock play the brothers. Mickey, remaining with the poor family, finds himself befriending a reserved though curious Edward. Milanic as Mickey is outstanding with gangly limbs, energetic pounce, and carefree expressions. He plops down and bounces up with mega-watt appeal. Udlock’s Edward is more cautious and mannered, and he eagerly follows his “best friend” with precious adoration and touching camaraderie. Elizabeth Weiss as buddy Linda brings a bubbly playful flair as a youngster, then transforms fetchingly into girlfriend territory. Douglas Richesson as the Narrator provides a running commentary throughout the show. He has a wonderful stage presence and singing voice as he appears in spotlights across the set, but he needs to project his text more clearly. The Narrator’s messages provide the important subtext of what’s happening on stage in terms of the class distinctions, which need to be crystal clear.
Noah Morowitz’s brisk direction keeps a fun-filled pace for the first half with the youngsters bouncing about, playing games, daring to keep up with each other as playful stunts ratchet into more serious territory. The second half doesn’t have the benefit of youthful shenanigans and instead delves into serious turmoil as Mickey takes more risks and crosses the line into delinquency, ultimately involving Eddie. The talented performers handle the spiraling choices and depth of the material with assurance.
The versatile set design by Mike Lewis and Clare Palace provides immediate access to the contrasting social strata by merely crossing the stage. Music direction by Vashti Burgess blends the orchestral arrangements to fit the vocals and the mood swings from fun and engaging to ominous warning tones just right.
Nicola Hoag’s costumes reflect the class distinctions, with Mickey’s disheveled appearance of worn trousers, wrinkled T-shirts, and unevenly pulled-up socks (cute touch). Edward on the other hand is neatly attired in classic shirts and cardigan sweaters. Most striking were the ensemble outfits for the upper-class Mrs. Lyons with designer suits in brilliant colors, the finale being garnet rose, a premonition of what’s to come.
Projections center stage immerse you directly into various scenes and settings, starting with a gritty urban back road, shifting to the city skyline, and then on to luscious green gardens for the countryside, with terrific lighting design and effects by Ken and Patti Crowley. The reddish hue sunset at the end reflects the inevitable bloody mishap — no spoiler alert, the hint is in the title of the show.
From its beginnings as Willy Russell’s school project in 1984 (yes nearly 40 years ago), Blood Brothers evolved into a London staple that ran for more than 24 years, winning every “Best Musical” award along the way. The opening jaunty song “Marilyn Monroe” should be enough to entice American audiences to consider catching a show that’s been heralded “across the pond” but not as available here in the States. In the capable hands of the British Players, the show is a crowd-pleaser and, as noted in the program, is probably “one of the greatest musicals you’ve never seen.”
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Blood Brothers plays through June 24, 2023 (Friday & Saturday at 8:00 PM, Saturday & Sunday at 2 PM) presented by the British Players performing at the Kensington Town Hall, 3710 Mitchell Street, Kensington, MD. For tickets ($28; $15 for under 12), go online.
COVID Safety: Masks are now optional at Kensington Town Hall.
Book, Lyrics, and Music – Willy Russell
Director — Noah Morowitz
Cast: Lauren-Nicole Gabel, Lisa Singleton, Rob Milanic; Jonathan Udlock; Elizabeth Weiss; Douglas Richesson; Michael Abendshein, Megan Hastie, Bob Schwartz
Stage Manager – Caitlin O’Leary
Set Design – Mike Lewis, Clare Palace
Lighting Design – Ken and Patti Crowley
Sound Design & Execution – Sarah Katz
Costumes – Nicola Hoag
Orchestra; Kenneth Brown, bass guitarist; Pierre Burges, percussionist; Vashti Burgess, pianist; Joseph Butler, saxophonist; Elija Sadjedy, clarinetist.