If, like the ancient Greeks who started the world's first dramatic festivals, you're a firm believer in the healing power of art, then the musical Blood Brothers might serve as something of a cathartic experience in the aftermath of last week's calamity at Columbine High School. Still, chances are that Willy Russell's story about twin brothers who die in a hail of gunfire will likely prove more disturbing than anything else. Despite director Bev Newcomb-Madden's intelligent, sensitive approach, several first-rate performances, a charming score and plenty of good humor, the Arvada Center's moving production isn't for anyone who's having significant problems coping with the Jefferson County shootings.
But it might be suitable for theatergoers ready to confront their emotions in the company of a group of gifted artists. Echoing the first few lines of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, a single choric figure begins the drama by asking, "Have you ever heard the story of the Johnstone twins?" as the lights illuminate two chalk-outlined figures at the edge of the stage floor. To the strains of a six-piece band, the narrator (Thaddeus Valdez) introduces us to Mrs. Johnstone (Joan Staples), a working-class mother of seven whose husband abandoned her while she was pregnant with twin boys. Determined to provide for her family, the expectant 25-year-old takes a job as a housekeeper to Mrs. Lyons (Beth Flynn), a wealthy London woman who, along with her seldom-seen husband (Gregg Price), has tried unsuccessfully to have children. After the boys are born, the two women agree that Eddie (Klint Rudolph) will grow up in the Lyons household while Mickey (Greg Baccarini) will remain with Mrs. Johnstone ("Nothing is yours on easy terms," she laments). But even though the adults vow to keep the boys separated, the two youngsters become playmates and best friends--until, later in life, Mickey loses his job and can't support his young wife, Linda (Alicia King), and their child. Influenced by his ne'er-do-well brother, Sammy (Jeffrey Gallegos), Mickey turns to a life of crime that eventually results in his and Eddie's untimely demise.
Although audience members are likely to be held rapt during the entire two-and-a-half-hour drama, the most gripping scenes depict the boys and their schoolmates reveling in their boundless zest for life. There's also a gut-wrenching episode in which Mrs. Johnstone bids farewell to Eddie ("Bright New Day"). Their splendid singing voices soaring with promise and hope, Baccarini, Rudolph, King and the superb Staples are equally effective when it comes to rendering their characters' collective, aching regret.
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But not even their virtuoso efforts can prepare spectators for the play's shattering ending. Devastated to a degree that no human being should ever have to endure, Staples quietly sings Mrs. Johnstone's desperate plea, "Tell me it's not true/Say it's just a story." As those heartbreaking words reverberate throughout the auditorium, you find yourself wondering whether this incredibly resilient woman will, perhaps understandably, succumb to monumental despair. But as Staples and company gather on stage to express the inexpressible, they rise from the proverbial ashes of their grief and, in a way that only the theater can offer us, point the way to beginning life anew. The performers' sublime artistry serves as an inspiration. If only, as the narrator says of Linda, Eddie and Mickey, every teenager's precious ideals could be fully realized and rewarded: "Everything's possible, the world's within your reach/And you can't understand how living could be anything other than a dream/If only the three of them could stay like that forever."
Blood Brothers, through May 9 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 303-431-3939.