Even with Broadway headliners Petula Clark and David Cassidy, and with the show still eking out a run in New York, “Blood Brothers” may prove a slow sell on its national tour, which recently opened in Dallas, courtesy of the Dallas Summer Musicals. Because New York critics savaged the show and there’s been little national media coverage, “Blood Brothers” doesn’t seem to have penetrated very deeply into the theater consciousness of the hinterlands.
That’s the way it seems in Dallas, where the B.O. has been sluggish and audiences often unresponsive to the two stars when they first appear. But as usual with the show’s cultish history, once you get theatergoers in the doors, they go away enthusiastic. For its part, the national tour is a top-notch reproduction.
A tale of Liverpool twins separated at birth and tragically separated by class, “Blood Brothers” has been justifiably knocked for its heavy-handed social message, its repetitiveness and its “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” theater style, with adults cutely playing kids for too long.
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But critics who pummeled the show for its melodramatic plot and its use of superstitious omens missed much of the point. Author-composer Willy Russell is after the portentous atmosphere of the ancient British ballads, songs with a common sense of the way poverty brutalizes people. Admittedly, this leads to a soap opera version of class analysis in which the well-off are neurotic and infertile, the poor dynamic but disorganized.
Yet there is something compelling about the show’s portrait of a doom-laden, recession-weary Britain, something that audiences connect with.[ Even Russell’s nursery-rhyme lyrics and ’50s- to ’70s-style period music — a mix of Merseyside pop, British music hall hummability and Broadway belting — contribute to the populist qualities of “Blood Brothers.”]
As the poor son, former Partridge Cassidy displays some impressive vocal chops, as does narrator Mark McGrath. But as an actor, Cassidy simply doesn’t have the grim forcefulness of the tremendous Brit original Con O’Neil. As his mum, Clark is a revelation. Hers was among the finest female pop voices Britain produced in the ’60s, and it remains an astonishing instrument: beautiful, powerful, pure.
As the other mum who goes mad, Priscilla Quinby makes her character much less of a monster than Barbara Walsh did on Broadway.
Co-directed by Bob Tomson and Bill Kenwright, tour retains Andy Walmsley’s sets with their cheap-looking back walls flown on for short scenes away from show’s basic brick housing project. Also retained is Joe Atkins’ lighting.
“Blood Brothers” never attains the status of working-class myth that it seems to want, but it deserves more respect than the trouncing it got. With the short runs on tour, the question is whether there will be enough time for the show’s come-from-behind effect to take hold.