Claps of thunder punctuated a recent performance of Willy Russell's Blood Brothers at Astoria Performing Arts Center, an incredibly skilled theater company that presents shows out of the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church on Crescent Street. Director Tom Wojtunik has no control over the weather (that we know), but on Saturday afternoon, these thunder bangs brought an appropriately ominous touch to the second act of this musical, an almost Mephistophelian tale of how one decision can shape — and doom — lives.
Wojtunik's well-sung, appealingly simple production needed no help in that department; it is ominous from the moment the audience enters and sees two chairs splayed on their sides at the center of the playing space. It won't be until two and a half hours later that the meaning of these chairs is revealed, but it isn't pretty.
Mickey and Edward are the blood brothers of the title, a pair of twins separated at birth when their mother, only called Mrs. Johnstone, gives one of them away to a wealthy, childless couple because she cannot afford to care for both (despite having a handful of other kids). Against the odds in 1960s Liverpool, the poor Mickey and rich Edward become best childhood mates without ever knowing their true identity as siblings. As time passes and they grow older, the initial decision to separate them begins to haunt their lives as deeply buried resentments come to the forefront.
Any production of Blood Brothers, which played only two years on Broadway despite an over-two-decade run as a West End revival, hinges on the casting of Mickey, Edward, and their mum, and this production has an ideal trio. The rubber-limbed Rowan Michael Meyer nicely charts Mickey's course from roly-poly seven-year-old to the shell of a man he becomes, beaten down by a life that took the wrong path. Simon Pearl is equally convincing as the straight-laced Edward, the less showy but equally important brother. It also helps that they look quite a bit alike, and neither is particularly cloying when they take on their younger selves.
Colleen Hawks' pleasing soprano lends a heartbreaking sense of humanity to Mrs. Johnstone, the brothers' warm survivor of a mother. Particular standouts in the uniformly strong ensemble are Kayla Wickes as Linda, the object of Mickey and Edward's affection, and Jonathan Gregg as Sammy, Mickey's potentially violent brother.
As a musical, Blood Brothers isn't perfect; there is simultaneously too much redundancy: two songs get repeated a combined total of nearly eight times, and there is too much extraneous material, namely extended sequences of children playing games and, later, teenagers being teenagers. Yet Wojtunik's swift staging, which benefits from a tight ten-person band led by Julianne B. Merrill, manages to make us look past that and, with the help of his designers, digs into the heart of the story.
Caitlin Cisek's costumes nicely differentiate between rich and poor. Mrs. Johnstone spends the first act in a frumpy house-frau dress. Mickey's sweater is caked with mud. Edward looks crisp. And his mother, Mrs. Lyons, is sharp in a pantsuit. Dan Jobbins' lighting adds to the ominous nature of the text, while Stephen K. Dobay's unobtrusive three-quarter-thrust scenic design draws the audience as close to the action as possible.
In recent years, APAC has mounted excellent revivals of musicals like The Human Comedy and The Secret Garden on modest means but with first-rate talent, and Blood Brothers is no different. If you're willing to venture into Queens — and you should — it'll be worth the trip.