Willy Russell's musical “Blood Brothers,” which enjoyed healthy runs both in London’s West End and on Broadway, is being staged anew by the Astoria Performing Arts Center through May 18. A tragic tale of how class can dictate one’s direction in life, the show is perhaps more relevant today than ever.
Recently during a rehearsal break, director Tom Wojtunik likened some of the events in the show to today’s world.
“As Americans, we’re always talking about class,” he said, pointing to recent elections and the Occupy Wall Street movement as examples.
It was Wojtunik, in fact, who suggested doing the show. “It’s such a theatrical piece,” he said, one which involves a narrator, adults acting as kids, and the breaking down of the fourth wall, an invisible separation between actor and audience. “I read the script and got excited by the themes.”
Broadway veteran Colleen Hawks takes on the demanding role of Mrs. Johnstone, a mother who, unable to support her children, is forced to surrender one of her newborn twin sons to a childless woman of means.
Offered the part, Hawks questioned whether it made financial sense for her to do the show, which pays somewhat less than Broadway.
“You have to make the decision — can I afford to do it?” she asked herself.
She ultimately decided she could and now finds herself center stage in her APAC debut.
“It’s a powerful, heavy show. Some of the lighter moments become my favorites,” Hawks said, including the song “Bright New Day,” which finds her singing, “We’re movin’ away, We’re startin’ all over again.”
“It’s different from the other songs. It stands out for me,” she said. “And I get to gospel it up a little.”
In the central roles of the twins are Simon Pearl and Rowan Michael Meyer, who, it quickly becomes clear, have struck up an easy friendship.
“We’re very in sync,” Pearl said, though the two had never met prior to this show.
Their characters age from 7 to 25 during the course of the show. For Meyer, “Aging is a challenge. It’s like playing four different characters,” he explained, slipping effortlessly into the physicality of each age he must portray.
“I can just watch him and play off him,” Pearl said.
And, of course, the upbringing of their respective characters enters the picture, as well.
“We’re from different classes,” Meyer said. “He was raised more properly. I take that on, too.”
Wojtunik has staged the production so that the entire cast, along with some musicians, are on stage throughout, further embracing the show’s theatricality. The audience nearly engulfs the playing area.
Working closely with Wojtunik is Christine O’Grady, who is responsible for the show’s musical staging and entrusted with devising movement for the actors in a show that has little real dancing.
Instead, she said, the cast is “walking and creating shapes and pairing gestures with music. Musical staging is the place where directing and choreography overlap.”
Happily, she and Wojtunik, who have worked together on four prior shows, seem to think alike.
“Tom and I had images we wanted to capture,” she said. “No matter my role, he and I work closely together. I bounce everything off him. It’s a great collaboration.”
Joining them on this production as musical director is Julianne Merrill.
As the show moved toward opening night, Wojtunik said, “I think it will appeal to a lot of people. It tends to appeal to people who don’t like musicals. It plays like a play, not a musical.”
When: May 2 through May 18, Thursdays to Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Where: Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent St. in Astoria
Tickets: $18., apacny.org, 1 (888) 596-1027