Unhappy families provoke art and artists attuned to an undertow of fragility and danger. The unhappy family is already a masterwork of structure and dramatic tension. Interpreted by an insider and rendered for display, that family illuminates something uncomfortable in the universal experience.
Missoula Children’s Theatre has devoted itself to family this season, opening with Children of Eden, a revived look at the epic role of father as compassionate, cruel and complex. A Christmas Story examined both parents, seen from the eyes of their child.
And now it’s mother’s turn. Joe Martinez, together with musical director Tom Wogsland, has staged Blood Brothers, a subversive musical by Willy Russell, as a testament to the heroism of maternal love. This is more properly an un-musical, of the sort that came into vogue in a flurry of Rice and Webber. While Broadway and the West End are currently in the midst of a rediscovery of old favorites, the new modern taste in musicals has veered into darkness and conversation over the past 20 years, staking out new territory between Verdi and Gypsy. (In spite of the financial success that revival shows often achieve, many people see the “renaissance” as another nail in the coffin of true theater. Un-musicals such as Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon plant traditional techniques in novel contexts, so audiences experience the fresh and the familiar together.)
Blood Brothers is a tragedy with archetypal characters—the good mother, the bad mother, the two sons—who express themselves as much through their dialogue as through their songs. When this company bursts into song, it’s not the forgetful revelry of “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.” These company numbers signal menace and threat. Think of Sweeney Todd, of Evita.
Actors have more responsibility in such shows than to exhibit stock characters. Martinez has an impeccable sense of his characters’ depths and smartly conveys this to actors. Blood Brothers demands its cast be intense and wild in an atmosphere of despair, granted only a brief reprieve. The cast may not hear applause until the end of each act, because the contemplative numbers intermingle with the words, offering no opening for the audience.
This unusual show is another welcome gamble from MCT. A desperate and destitute mother separates her twin sons at birth. She gives one to the upper-class woman who employs her to clean house, granting the childless wife her strongest wish. Fueled by superstition, they make a hellish bargain, a pact of secrecy.
The boys grow, stumble upon each other and instantly become friends, unwittingly repairing their uterine bond. The wealthy mother panics she will lose her child back to his birth mother, while the lower-class woman worries the discovery of her wretched choice will result in torment for everyone. Since the show opens with two dead bodies and a requiem, we know she’s right. The question for us remains, “How much pain could this cause?”
Martinez concentrates on a mother’s story in superb collusion with actress Alicia Bullock-Muth. Cast as a sensual, hard-working mother, burdened by poverty and misfortune, Bullock-Muth has never been better. She has freedom here to explore emotional range in her singing voice she has never mined, and the result is a powerful, sweeping confidence that pulls the whole show right up to her feet. She brings soul, sorrow and depth to the character of Mrs. Johnstone, making her more than just a mother—this is Bullock-Muth as a mother. In this production she creates a character uniquely hers. I didn’t know she had this in her, but Martinez did, risking the success of the production on her. Boy, does she deliver.
As her twins, Luke Walrath and Hunter Townsend play Mickey and Eddie, respectively. They start as seven-year-olds, appear next at 14 and finally at 21 (a muffled drumbeat of superstition runs through the show). We are never asked to believe they are children, which is good, only that they represent children. Each actor is very good and, as it should be, best when interacting with the other. These two really have the spark of meaning and affection between them, one lovely voice complementing the other, whether speaking or singing.
Teresa Waldorf as the adoptive mother offers a nice counterpoise to Bullock-Muth, physically and emotionally. She is tight and desperate, her performance almost tipping into hysteria but not quite. She conveys the haunted, lonely sense of a woman who cannot mother as she wants to.
Malcolm Lowe, as ever, is deceptively charming in the role of the Narrator, who oils his way around the stage as our guide to unspoken thoughts. His charm, his airy, gliding presence, his voice, all lure us in, only that we may be seduced into focusing on him whenever he appears. Lowe has the rare stage presence of a generous actor who commands attention and at the same time makes everyone else look good with his light.
Such a talent is also crucial in a good director, and Martinez has it. He is able to limn a whole world as well as sculpt individual characters. He must know what to give actors to hold on to, how to show them where the heart of a character beats. His company is defined by expert performances and—unbelievably!—effortless English accents. We forget that this is a relatively bare-bones production. Limitations (such as an orchestra of six, or an ill-advised sliding pole) never make themselves felt. MCT has always claimed for itself an authority in our community; now, at last, the company begins to mature into something indispensable.
Please consult the events calendar in this issue for Blood Brothers performance dates and show times, or call the MCT box office at 728-PLAY for more information.