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Superlative performances elevate otherwise mediocre 'Brothers'

It's amazing what a superlative cast can do for a passable show.

In the case of "Blood Brothers," which opened the Irish Classical Theatre Company's new season Friday night in the Andrews Theatre, the talents of the men and women onstage shone just brightly enough to obscure the blemishes in the material.

This musical import from London's West End, where it has been running for more than 21 years, is a kind of fairy tale for grown-ups. It centers on the story of a poor and pressed-upon Mrs. Johnstone and her ill-fated twins, who grow up on separate sides of the tracks in Liverpool. Enticed by the wealthy woman who employs her as a housekeeper, the poor mother gives away one of the twins at birth. The titular brothers embark on separate and troubled journeys, which converge happily in youth but lead to an unlikely and explosive conclusion.

Lest the tale sound terminally tragic, author Willy Russell has infused the piece with more than its share of wit and charm, and set it to an eclectic score calculated to get your feet tapping.

The achievement of this production, directed with characteristic brio by Fortunato Pezzimenti, is in its breezy but respectful treatment of Russell's sketchy fable through fine singing, excellent choreography, and the high acting standards for which the company is known.

As the woebegone matriarch Mrs. Johnstone, Loraine O'Donnell delivers a heartfelt performance, the pathos of which is counterbalanced by Brian Riggs' devious performance as the show's nefarious narrator.

Jenn Stafford, as the barren matron who strikes the underhanded deal with Mrs. Johnstone, is deliciously evil and unhinged. Supporting characters played by Doug Crane, Nathan Michael Winkelstein, David Bondrow, Christopher Standart and Cassie Gorniewicz are all eminently gifted.

But as the blood brothers themselves, David Autovino and Steve Copps run away with the show. The pair renders the interplay between the two brothers, both as children and teenagers, in hues both touching and playful. For his impossibly well-mannered character, Copps adopts a bright-eyed naivete and an accent vaguely evocative of Stewie from the animated comedy series "Family Guy."

Autovino, the only actor in the show who pulls off an entirely convincing accent, plays the mischievous and troubled Mickey with a sincere mix of petulance and suppressed tenderness.

The mere thought of grown men attempting to play characters ranging in age from 7 to 18 is enough to induce cringes. But as portrayed by Copps and Autovino, you'll hardly blink at the disconnect. Their chemistry is the highlight of the show and elevates an overwrought and baldly moralistic storyline into the stuff of real drama.

As for the music, it's pleasant enough, though at points becomes numbingly repetitive and often seems disjointed from the story at hand. The most hummable tunes, the vastly overemployed "Marilyn Monroe" and show-closing "Tell Me It's Not True," have a good deal in common with the melodic force of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Unfortunately, they also have a lot in common with the facile lyrics of Tim Rice.

But with a cast like this, it seems probable, the Irish Classical could pull off a production of "Cats."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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>Theater Review

"Blood Brothers"

Review: Three stars (out of four)

Drama presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company in the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St. Through Oct. 11. For information, call 853-4282 or visit www.irishclassicaltheatre.com.

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