THEATER REVIEWS : The Curse of ‘Blood Brothers’ : Cassidy and Clark Give Some Life to This Musical Oddity


At the beginning of “Blood Brothers,” when the narrator asks, “Did you ever hear the story of the Johnstone twins / As like each other as two new pins?” you get the feeling that he might tell you, using badly rhymed couplets.

Nowhere in musical theater is there such a persistent and, in fact, gratuitous narrator as the one in “Blood Brothers,” the popular 1983 melodramatic oddity with music, lyrics and book by Willy Russell that opened Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and comes to the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills on March 14. This narrator (Mark McGrath) tells you what you already know, as portentously as is humanly possible. He’s like a singing Rod Serling who interprets every twist in “The Twilight Zone” while you watch.

Producer Bill Kenwright’s 1988 version of “Blood Brothers” (which he also co-directed) is a hit in London, where it is still playing, as well as on Broadway, where it opened in 1993. The show portrays class as the great divider, its rules as ineluctable as fate. This is a theory more dear to the British, but it has certain grim resonance here as well, particularly as the war on poverty comes to a close without success.


This production’s canny casting of pop stars--fabled class jumpers on both sides of the Atlantic--adds another twist. Mrs. Johnstone (Petula Clark) is a vibrant Liverpudlian who’s had seven children by the time she’s 25. Her children have no discernible talent to take them out of the poverty they get stuck in when their father walks out. Pregnant with twins, Mrs. Johnstone cleans house for the well-to-do but infertile Mrs. Lyons (Priscilla Quinby). The women make a deal. Mrs. Lyons will take one of the twins and bring it up as her own.

After the boys are born, Mrs. Johnstone balks, threatening to expose the secret if the baby is taken from her. Mrs. Lyons shrieks a curse: “If either twin learns that he was part of a pair, they both immediately die!” This convinces Mrs. Johnstone to give up the baby. OK. At this point the narrator starts following Mrs. Lyons around singing, “The devil’s got your number.” From then on, he constantly pops up--in windows, doorways, wherever the light is dim and the music ominous--to warn people that the devil has their number.

As the boys grow up it becomes clear that the twins are not as alike as two pins, and Mrs. Johnstone has kept the cute one, Mickey (David Cassidy). Mrs. Lyons’ pampered son Eddie (Tif Luckenbill) somehow meets his unidentical twin, and they become best friends, much to their respective mothers’ dismay.

An endless stretch of Act One is devoted to Mickey (almost 8 but still riding an imaginary horse wherever he goes), Eddie and their friends playing games with spit. Much is made over the hilarity of spit.

Blessedly, in the second act, the boys grow up and we do not have to watch men in their 30s (at least) spin around in schoolboy shorts rolling on their backs and humming. In this act, class differences step in and accomplish what no mother could: They separate the boys for good.


“Blood Brothers” is a stark and silly fable told in songs with bad lyrics, but what does it have going for it? It depicts the working class as the salt of the earth and victims of the neurotic, small-minded rich, a view that may have helped make “Blood Brothers” into popular mass entertainment. Dramatically, it is inferior to Russell’s “Educating Rita” and “Shirley Valentine,” which depict women who, conversely, overcome what life has handed out to them.


Musically, “Blood Brothers” has a couple of infectious tunes, however slight. One of them, “That Guy,” keeps threatening to turn into the Barry Manilow hit “Can’t Smile Without You.” And there is one good ballad, Mrs. Johnstone’s goodby to her baby son, “Easy Terms,” which Clark delivers in a lovely, slightly Irish lilt, with real melancholy and true feeling. Clark, whose voice remains appealing, is less brassy than Stephanie Lawrence, who preceded her on Broadway. She gives a warm and credible performance.

Cassidy proves that he deserves to play a role that is not as relentlessly cute and heavy-handed as Mickey. As Linda, the girl both brothers love, Yvette Lawrence is fresh and great to look at--a dark, doe-eyed beauty.

In my experience, the role of the narrator is a losing proposition for anyone with the bad luck to play it. McGrath is smug and shrill. When he sings for the umpteenth time, “The devil’s got your number / You know he’s gonna find you,” you may just feel that he has, indeed, found you, and hell is a place called “Blood Brothers.”


* “Blood Brothers,” Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tonight through Sunday, 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $19-$47. (714) 740-2000 or (213) 480-3232. March 1-26, the show comes to the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. $20-$50. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (213) 480-3232 . Running time: 3 hours.

Petula Clark: Mrs. Johnstone Mark McGrath: Narrator Priscilla Quinby: Mrs. Lyons Walter Hudson: Mr. Lyons David Cassidy: Mickey Tif Luckenbill: Eddie John Kozeluh: Sammy Yvette Lawrence: Linda Others: Christopher Yates, Brandon Stacy Williams, Perry Ojeda, Leslie Ann Hendricks, Marcy De Nezza, Kent Dalian.

A Bill Kenwright production. Book, music and lyrics by Willy Russell. Directed by Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson. Sets and costumes by Andy Walmsley. Lights by Joe Atkins. Sound by Paul Astbury. Musical direction by Rod Edwards. Arrangements by Del Newman.