BWW Review: BLOOD BROTHERS at Wichita Community Theatre, Sparking the Conversation on Gun Violence in America
3,042 young adults died tragically in 2007 alone from gunfire in the United States according to Children's Defense, a non-profit dedicated to building safer communities with a small yet mighty focus on the crisis of gun violence in America. If that statistic alone doesn't scare you, maybe this will: in a recent 2019 article from the Associated Press, it states here in Wichita, violent crime rates are now twice the national average with gun shootings doubling in the past five years since 2014. The Wichita Police Department recognize shootings have become problematic and are now participating in initiatives such as citizen patrol to help out the understaffed branch keep crime low and accountability high. Bearing this in mind, Wichita Community Theatre opens their 2019-2020 season with the musical Blood Brothers, a show filled with a variety of themes but particularly gun violence being the most shocking and prevalent topic presented. The production runs at 258 N. Fountain from September 4-15, Wednesday through Saturday and is sponsored by KMUW Wichita 89.1.
Initially, the show was written in 1981 by English playwright Willy Russell. The original production was performed consecutively for twenty-four years becoming the third longest running musical on the West End. Subsequently, this led to a Broadway run and being nominated for a Tony award for best new musical in 1993. Rated for audience members age fourteen and up, Blood Brothers is a relatively fresh musical to Wichita theatre goers. Personally, as a reviewer, professional actor and musical theatre buff, I see a lot of shows and become familiar with plots, dialogue and scores, for instance. It was exciting to see something different and new for a change on a Wichita stage, hear new melodies, witness high-stake scenes performed, and fall in love with the plot and the strong ensemble who carried the themes throughout their energetic delivery.
Leading the cast was Chris Loucks as the narrator. Loucks would appear suddenly, without warning, to push the plot forward with tons of dialogue and monologues as a one-man Greek chorus. His haunting tune "Madman" became instantly familiar to the audience along with his beautiful tenor voice while foreshadowing to the immanent, tragic ending. He had a monologue in the second act about mortality that had me on the edge of my seat wishing for younger days. As one of the mothers to the bargained boys was no stranger to the Wichita stage, Vonda Newby Schuster. Schuster had lovely moments such as during her solo called "Easy Terms" sounding similar to icon Linda Rondstadt. Opposite Schuster as the well-to-do mother was Amy Ruppert. Originally from the United Kingdom, Ruppert had no trouble with a proper British accent fitting right at home with this old English musical. She also had a remarkable singing voice which was showcased for "My Child" unto which the bargaining plot began. Her stage husband Mr. Lyons was played by Benjamin Smith. Though he may not be from the United Kingdom, he was able to match Ruppert's pacing with a towering stature necessary for the fatherly figure role. Rounding out the cast were the blood brothers Mickey (Mark Shobe) and Eddie (John Lloyd Stafford III). Shobe was both adorable and charming as a fresh-faced newcomer to Wichita Community Theatre. He had the double duty of being innocent and coy as a young lad playing with a gun to becoming dark and menacing as a violent adult carrying out murderous crimes. He also possessed good musicality and musicianship throughout. My favorite was "Long Sunday Afternoon." Stafford, on the other hand, showed maturity for his character. In act two, he delivers a monologue about romance earning him a tranquil audience. Together, the two have cleverly written scenes. There was one about learning the "F" word alluding to such themes of loss of innocence.
The rest of the cast is featured as storytelling ensemble of characters with choreography by Jerry Wehry. From dancing childhood friends, to romantic love interests, to police officers, these performers included Claire Wehry (Linda), Isaiah Wiley (Sammy), Jewell Martinez, Jerusha Lofland, Trevor Vincent Farney, Holly Cool and Alex Rosell. All show energy, character, and wonderful, interesting performance quality making the time fly by for this two hour show.
Technically, the set design by team Steve Miotto and S.P. Callaway was simple yet effective. The room was positioned as a normal, flat proscenium with jutting platforms and a painted backsplash of sponged bricks. The lighting by Joseph Heil had a careful vision and layout, which is something often overlooked by designers at Wichita Community Theatre. The lighting played up the controversial themes of gun violence but still allowed actors to find their appropriate blocking on stage allowing everything to be seen. Speaking of blocking, director Joe Parrish gave high-quality staging and direction to the actors which was borderline regional theatre worthy. There was no applause on opening night after song and dance numbers until the very end for curtain call which shows the amount of gripping attention the audience held until a standing ovation. Seeing this production reminds me of some of the community theatre shows I would see in New York City. Congratulations is certainly in order to Parrish and assistant director Leo Larson for bringing west coast, Californian theatre to us right here in the Midwest and to the great city of Wichita. It was a smart show selection.
Up next for Wichita Community Theatre is "Almighty Bob," a play about a man being checked into a nursing home. You can only infer what kind of trouble, but striking conversations will occur. The play runs from October 16-27 for two weeks. Be sure to call 316-686-1282 to get your tickets ahead of time. It would also be wise to make reservations for their holiday show "Christmas Belles." Tickets are sure to go fast. More information can be found here on their facebook page.
Wichita Community Theatre presents Blood Brothers. Pictured left: Mark Shobe as Mickey along with John Stafford III as Eddie.