If you told me that "Blood Brothers," a new British musical, had been written by two 16-year-old boys who lived in provincial England, I could excuse them.
I could overlook the simplemindedness of the book, which is about twins, one brought up in poverty, the other in luxury, because I would know that teenagers do not know enough of life to write anything more worldly.
I could overlook the lack of skill in storytelling. What more can you expect of adolescents? They begin at the end by showing us that the twins are both dead. This is all right. But if the ending is no surprise, the development must be skillful. In this case it's far from it. The tragedy is blamed on a stupid sense of fatalism and an even stupider conviction that the class system is the root of all evil.
If I had been informed that the score had been written by teenagers I could even forgive its repetitiveness and naivete, knowing that their exposure to more sophisticated music was limited.
But none of this forbearance is possible knowing that "Blood Brothers" is the work of Willy Russell, the author of "Shirley Valentine" and "Educating Rita."
It is just impossible to believe that "Blood Brothers," with its stereotyped characters and pathetically melodramatic plot, is the work of so seasoned a writer.
Granted the limitations of the material, the performers do valiantly. The role of the boys' mother is tricky, because so much of what happens to her is just so stupid. (Do we need to go to the theater to be reminded that life can be very stupid?) Nothing Stephanie Lawrence does can really persuade us this good-hearted blunderer is a tragic figure.
As the lower-class and therefore more loveable of the twins, Con O'Neill is an extremely ingratiating performer, but I got tired of seeing him play a gawky youngster all through Act I and a gawky adolescent through most of Act II; he was more convincing as an adult who inherited much of his mother's good-hearted stupidity.
Mark Michael Hutchinson makes the upper-class boy winning throughout, and Jan Graveson is strong as the boys' mutual girlfriend.
This has already been running five years in London. But then "The Mousetrap" has been running for 35.
The main trouble, or troubles, with "Blood Brothers," the British musical which opened at the Music Box last night, is that it is heavy-handed, heavy-footed, with not too much up top and precious little in between. Here would appear to be a sure anatomy for failure.
This musical by Willy Russell - the playwright previously properly distinguished for his "Educating Rita" and "Shirley Valentine" - is about two twin brothers in Liverpool, parted at birth, united in death.
It seems to be an unwitting, almost unconscious, essay in ponderous vacuity that lasts from there to eternity, while taking itself far more seriously than its actual seriousness can take.
The show, which has been very successful in London's West End, is simplistic in story, ludicrous in character and even tone.
You don't believe a moment of it, from the working-class single mother giving up one of her twin boys at birth to the posh, childless woman for whom she housecleans, and the notion that this is some unutterably wicked sin, to the eventual friendship of the boys and their somewhat scurried deaths.
Of course, as the Elizabethans knew, banality can be the stuff of tragedy, the commonplace its very fabric. But the banality must be transformed by art.
Russell's music and lyrics are awesome - not as in awe-inspiring but as in awful. Two numbers, one about Marilyn Monroe and dancing (it must leave her spinning in her grave!) and another about superstition, are repeated ad nauseam, and their familiarity merely deepens contempt.
But oddly, considering Russell's reputation as a playwright, "Blood Brothers" is finally killed off by its book. There is, for example, a sort of chorus-like narrator who goes around chanting doggerel couplets such as: "Who dare teach the lambs in spring / what the later seasons bring?" or, at the work's climax: "How to blame superstition for what has come to pass / or could it be what we the English call 'class'?"
Then there is the extraordinarily unwise decision to have the brothers and their friends played by the same actors from nursery school to adulthood - which makes a playground game of Cowboys and Indians look like "West Side Story" meets "Winnie the Pooh," and throughout results in some of the most outrageously cute-cum-camp acting you will ever encounter.
The overemphatic staging by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson seems just what the musical deserves, while the scenery and costumes by Andy Walmsley vividly suggest the Merseyside on a dull month of Sundays.
The cast - five British principals backed by 11 Americans - stand little chance with a show that takes few survivors.
However, Stephanie Lawrence does rather well as a battered, chirpy and finally teary working-class mum, and at the other end of the scale Con O'Neill seems, here at least, quite repulsive as a brother who has watched far too many Al Pacino movies for his histrionic good.
Somewhere in between there comes Jan Graveson, pert and sometimes almost touching as the brothers' joint love interest. I note that she was once "a consecutive two-time winner of the British Tap Dancing Championships." I would advise her to keep on tapping.
Hardened New York theatergoers who expect British musicals to hit town powered by big bucks, Technicolor spectacle and deafening amplification may be taken aback by "Blood Brothers," the latest West End export to reach Broadway. "Blood Brothers" opens with a tableau of its title characters laid out as corpses. The eveninglong flashback to follow unfolds largely in the dank brick welfare housing of depressed northern England. The offstage band is small and tinny enough to hold forth in a garage. There is not much dancing, or, for that matter, much to dance about.
Which is just how Willy Russell, the author of the show's book, music and lyrics, wants it. First produced in London in 1983, "Blood Brothers" is a Thatcher-era attack on the British class system that wears its austerity on its sleeve, bourgeois frills be damned. Mr. Russell, the Liverpool-born author of "Educating Rita" and "Shirley Valentine," would rather be sincere than slick. His musical has the rough-hewn proletarian flavor of British dramas of the angry-man era of the late 1950's and early 60's, and that authentic chips-with-everything spirit has been transferred to the snug Music Box Theater without any infusions of Broadway glitz.
Whether the appealing, pungent atmosphere will carry less class-conscious Americans through the musical's nearly three hours is another question. "West Side Story" this is not. Easy as it is to like "Blood Brothers" on egalitarian principle, it is rousing theater only in spurts. Mr. Russell milks a melodramatic tale peopled with agitprop characters exclusively for didactic ends. His score is tuneful (and impressive coming from an essentially amateur composer) but spread thin. One song, typically, has four reprises, and even so the evening seems to have too little music and too much talk.
At center stage is a heroine like Mr. Russell's Rita and Shirley: a woman ground down by economic deprivation and men. Mrs. Johnstone (Stephanie Lawrence), as she is called, is a single mother of nine who decides to give up one of her new twin babies to a wealthy woman (Barbara Walsh) for whom she cleans house. The boys, who later become best friends without learning that they're brothers, grow up on separate social tracks that eventually lead to a tragic reckoning seemingly inspired by "Carousel."
But not before the author pounds in his deterministic conviction that nurture always wins out over nature, that the rich brother (Mark Michael Hutchinson) is inevitably bound for success while his impoverished counterpart (Con O'Neill) is destined for the skids. Such is the rigidity of the show's simplistic ideological scheme that the rich mother is barren and her husband (Ivar Brogger) asexual while the poor folks all radiate fecundity and erotic swagger.
As indulgently directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson, "Blood Brothers" seems to be pitched at audiences with time on their hands, tourists perhaps. Mr. Russell makes each plot point several times, with the utilitarian dialogue, songs and doom-laden narrator (Warwick Evans) all chiming in. (Should anyone's mind wander, the most portentous lines are italicized by drum beats, growling synthesizer chords and lurid lighting cues.) Both acts come to dead halts for completely excisable sequences of child's play that seem to exist only to jolly up British matinee audiences eternally nostalgic for "Oliver!" In Act I, the neighborhood children, cloyingly played by adult actors portraying 7-year-olds as if they were toddlers, act out attenuated games with cap pistols and slingshots. In Act II, the same lengthy attention is devoted to the now teen-age characters' first fumbling forays into puppy love.
The scenes that actually advance Mr. Russell's plot are more often enlivened by his music, which recalls both old-time Liverpudlian rock and American country, than by the banal lyrics about bright new days and long Sunday afternoons. (An opening-number simile about Marilyn Monroe is pushed into inanity by overuse by evening's end.) The performers, British and American alike, all sing and act forcefully, even when, like Ms. Walsh, they must animate the most abject caricatures. Mr. Evans's prophet-of-doom turn as the narrator boasts an insinuating Macheath quality, and Mr. O'Neill and Mr. Hutchinson bond as sympathetic brothers once they are allowed to play roughly their own age. Jan Graveson is a fine Shirley Valentine-in-waiting as the feisty young woman who loves them both.
Ms. Lawrence played the sad mother for two years in the 1988 West End revival of "Blood Brothers," which is still running. She lacks the touchingly frayed warmth that the pop singer Barbara Dickson brought to the original production. But she is a clarion belter in the West End manner of Elaine Paige, and her saintly, bone-weary survivor's smile is the very soul of a musical that reveres underdogs as unequivocally as its splashier London competitor canonizes cats.
Willy Russell's musical opens with the bodies of two brothers sprawled in death before a gathering crowd as a mother sings, "Tell me it's not true, tell me it's just a story," leaving "Blood Brothers" little left in the way of surprise. What does surprise, however, is how just a few effective moments can sustain an audience through nearly three hours of otherwise amateur writing and staging and preposterous tale-telling.
For this is a show in which every emotional and political point is underscored by threatening music, shrieks of horror and, above it all, craning robotic spotlights, their lurid, splayed beams slicing through the grim, eternal Liverpudlian fog.
On the rare occasions when Russell allows his story to unfold without annoying lights, grumbling music and rhyming rumination, "Blood Brothers" effectively suggests the bleakness of British life in the '80s. Presumably, that timeliness is what has kept the show running in the West End since 1988 (where it was reborn after a quick failure five years earlier).
Despite a bigger and less tacky-looking production, the show is unlikely to repeat that success on Broadway.
The boys in the brood are twins, the last of Mrs. Johnstone's (Stephanie Lawrence) nine children. Too poor to raise them alone, she reluctantly agrees to give one of the twins to the childless couple for whom she keeps house, agreeing that the boys must never meet. Yet try as Mrs. Lyons (Barbara Walsh) might -- and she goes so far as to move away, though not too far away -- she cannot keep the boys apart, as fate urges them to their appointment with death.
The first unlikely twist has this pauper and prince becoming best friends as children; next they're reunited when Mrs. Johnstone is relocated to public housing not far from the Lyons' new den. Eventually, they fall in love with the same girl, and while the preppie Eddie (Mark Michael Hutchinson) goes off to college, Mickey (Con O'Neil) and Linda (Jan Graveson) marry and sink in a downward spiral of Thatcher-era joblessness and melancholy that leads, inevitably, to the boys' violent demise.
The scenes are embellished by third-rate Tin Pan Alley songs that rarely move the plot along; an opening number about Marilyn Monroe is twice reprised in scenes that bear only the most marginal relationship to the song. To make sure we get his points, Russell also provides a narrator (Warwick Evans) in a black suit and skinny black tie who speaks in rhyming couplets.
Russell's schematism locks every character in place. Struggling Mrs. Johnstone is the all-sacrificing, ever-loving mother. The Lyonses are such yuppie scum that he (Ivar Brogger) must also be drawn as a callous absentee father while she, high strung and neurotic, is also -- astonishingly -- the agent of Mickey's final confrontation with Eddie.
The first act requires most of the company to impersonate children, which grows very tiresome even when practiced by such experts as O'Neil and Graveson. But they're the show's chief attributes anyway. O'Neil extends a long, plastic face into childish exasperation, adolescent awkwardness and black-hole depression with simplicity and conviction, while Graveson is completely charming in her transitions from tomboy to lovestruck teen to desperate young mother.
Lawrence, who has played Mrs. Johnstone in London, is cheerful in the first act, less so in the second, when she becomes a kind of narrator's second. Barbara Walsh, fresh from triumph in "Falsettos," is this show's chief victim, a game soul in an utterly thankless role.
Andy Walmsley's physical production is grim even when it's not meant to be, and that lighting, by Joe Atkins, you want to swat. Yet "Blood Brothers" has a weird effect. All these ingredients should add up to disaster, but while it's bad theater, I didn't regret having spent time with these people.