Bloody good time

More than any other art form, theater relies on solid behind-the-scenes work in order to make what's presented to the viewers work. Marquette's Department of Performing Arts has several capable actors appearing in its ongoing production of Willy Russell's "Blood Brothers," but it's the clever casting, inventive stage design and other theatrical maneuvers that are to thank for the production's success.

Set in 1960s Liverpool, U.K., "Blood Brothers" is a "folk rock opera" about superstition, class strife and the indelible stain of an action of questionable morality. At face value, though, it's about Mrs. Johnstone, an impoverished mother who gives one of her twin sons to her rich employer. By doing so, she sets in motion a tragic chain of events that, by the laws of drama, can only have one conclusion.

Like most previous Marquette productions, the talent pool here is of inconsistent depth, but director Phylis Ravel cleverly cast the production in such a way that the true talent rises to the top — or moves to center stage, as it were.

As Mrs. Johnstone, Anne Yatco has a big role to fill. She's on stage for almost the entire musical and featured heavily (if not exclusively) in most of the songs. This is Yatco's final mainstage production with the Department of Performing Arts, and she's clearly determined not to be forgotten anytime soon. With her clear voice and commanding stage presence, she takes control of the Mrs. Johnstone-centered songs but doesn't forget to act her character's melancholy part when she's not singing.

As Mickey Johnstone, Nate Miller receives the brunt of fate's punishment. He has a lot to sink his teeth into and does so with relish, sometimes to the point of clownish overeagerness. But the role demands a passionate performance, and Miller seems happy to oblige.

Pat Ivansek is a subtler presence in the role of Eddy Lyons, the son Mrs. Johnstone gave away. Like Mickey, Eddy ages from a boy of seven to a man of 25, and Ivansek is better than Miller at allowing his character to age naturally. In a musical that values spotlight-grabbing monologues, asides and solos, Ivansek is content to be a part of the play's fabric, and the production is better for it.

Ravel employs a judiciously arranged ensemble to give her stars, especially Yatco, a break, and the seven-member group attacks its few moments of stardom with zeal. Songs like "Take a Letter, Miss Jones" and the acrobatically performed "Kids Game" were how Russell intended to give his play more levity and with them the ensemble adds voltage and pep to an otherwise ponderously plotted musical.

The production is staged without much of a set — just a cloth backdrop, sloped stage and a few spare props — but Anna Bates' thematic, textural lighting suggests the necessary time, date and weather changes just as well as a more cluttered stage could have.

Not every directorial decision is a sound one, however.

Curiously, Ravel must have decided that the play's heavy themes needed more of a temper, and so decided to add comic touches to the role of Mickey. Miller is expected to somehow provide comic relief while playing a wronged, doomed character. He is excellent in the latter stage of the play when things get dramatic, but for much of the first act his attempts at humor come off as hammy and forced. Megan Mulherin apparently had a similar lack of confidence in Russell's work and it shows in her jazzy, Vegas-style dance numbers. Both touches are out of sync with the play's emotional tide and constitute the production's biggest flaw.

The thick Liverpudlian accents also proved a problem for the cast despite the assistance of Maureen Kilmurry as a dialect coach. Some cast members slip into them naturally, but several have conspicuously forced Irish brogues. It's an unfortunate distraction because the viewer likely can't help noticing the misapplied phonetics even when characters are delivering their definitive lines.

Still, the production is paced so that the viewer doesn't have long to dwell on the inauthentic accents or misdirected humor because another song or intense, well-performed segment has received its cue. Every production is bound to have faults, but when the assorted players can reach into theater's bag of tricks and conceal them, as the cast and crew here have done, it won't be the mistakes the audience is remembering after filing out of the theater and into the street.

Grade: AB