At the heart of Willy Russell’s heart-wrenching musical “Blood Brothers” — a show that might be described as a Greek tragedy of the British working class — is the much-debated question about which is more crucial to human development: nature or nurture. Is there something in our genetic code that determines the course of our life? Is it the specific circumstances under which we are raised? Or, is it some complex combination of both?
When: Through Nov. 15
Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre,
6970 N. Glenwood
Tickets: $34 – $39
Info: (800) 595-4849;
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes
with one intermission
First produced in Russell’s home town of Liverpool in 1983, and later remounted on London’s West End, where it ran for 24 years, “Blood Brothers” is now receiving an ideally intimate, beautifully wrought revival by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, the storefront with a unique ability to breathe fierce emotional life into everything it touches. The show (with its book, lyrics and music a seamless piece of work created entirely by Russell) is of a piece with such British musicals about the working class as “Billy Elliot” and “The Last Ship.” It also is part of a long line of plays on the subject of the pernicious impact of Britain’s class structure, including Russell’s own “Educating Rita.”
Of course there is no need to cross the pond to understand all this: In its own way, “Blood Brothers” speaks very directly and poignantly to Chicago’s own mean streets at the moment. And it’s a good bet director Fred Anzevino had that in mind when he decided to make this show part of his theater’s season.
We know how it all will end from the very first scene as a bereaved mother, Mrs. Johnstone (a sublime portrayal by Kyrie Anderson, whose lovely voice and controlled acting are ideal), stands over the bodies of her twin sons, Mickey (Charlie Mann) and Edward (Cody Jolly). Though separated at birth, the boys were strangely drawn to each other throughout the years of their childhood and teens, despite many efforts to keep them apart. But the fates, and society, would ultimately have their way with them.
It all begins in the early 1960s. By the time Mrs. Johnstone gives birth to her twins she already has five children at home, and her husband has fled the nest. Deep in debt, harried by welfare, and overwhelmed, she is relieved to find a job as a domestic for the wealthy Mrs. Lyons (Victoria Oliver, who captures just the right sense of entitlement and neuroses), whose husband is away on a long-term business project.
Mrs. Lyons is desperate for a baby but unable to conceive, and she makes a deal with Mrs. Johnstone: She will take one of the twins, but the two women must enter into a secret pact that will allow her to call the child her own. It becomes a deal with the devil.
The rambunctious Mickey (Mann is entirely winning both as the sensitive but mischievous boy, and as his older, darker incarnation) is raised in poverty by the warm-hearted Mrs. Johnstone, and frequently gets into trouble with the police. Edward (the perfectly preppy Jolly) is privileged from the start — raised in a posh home and sent to the best schools. While they’re still kids, however, their paths cross. And Mickey’s streetwise gumption, and Edward’s arcane knowledge, exert a magnetism that seals their bond.
The real problems begin in late adolescence as both boys fall for the same girl: Linda (Dana Alexander). Only some years later, after the oblivious Edward has become a success, and Mickey has married Linda but ended up in jail — an experience that leaves him traumatized, unemployed and pill-dependent — does push come to shove.
Throughout, Jordan Phelps makes a vivid impression as the Narrator, using his razor-sharp focus and sonorous voice to both chide and charm Mrs. Johnstone, and set an ominous tone. Designers Adam Vaness, Maya Michele Fein and Bill Morey help capture the time and place. And, as always, the astonishing pianist/music director Jeremy Ramey magically makes his band of four sound like a full orchestra.