Blood Brothers Proves Nearly Naked Can Do More Than Alternative Theater

It seems Nearly Naked Theatre has been doing "naughty" plays for so long now that the company can appear subversive only by presenting a traditional musical. But the 10-year-old troupe isn't pulling a stunt with its production of Blood Brothers, Willy Russell's celebrated smash hit about twins separated at birth. Nearly Naked is simply doing what it's done for a decade: presenting solid, entertaining theater.

Blood Brothers is an odd choice for a company founded on the sort of stuff typically referred to as "alternative theater": oddball pieces like Metamorphoses, a retelling of stories by Ovid set in a swimming pool, and Betty's Summer Vacation, a campy farce about a shy serial killer who collects body parts in hat boxes. When the company does do a musical, it tends to be something like Reefer Madness, the pot comedy it presented last season, or Batboy, a rock opera of sorts about a singing half-bat creature found in a cave.

But Nearly Naked artistic director Damon Dering has been keeping a list of shows he most wants to stage, and Blood Brothers, one of the longest-running shows in the history of musical theater (it's been playing in London's West End for 22 years) was on that list. I was expecting Dering, who directed this production, to give Russell's solemn, straightforward story a sexed-up treatment, with shirtless cops in the chase scenes and perhaps topless moms in the "My Child" number.

No. Dering's approach to this comparatively tame tuner is straightforward and, because he's cast it carefully and directed it lovingly, the results are magnificent. Russell's story of twin brothers who grow up apart — one rich, the other poor — in 20th-century England is chockablock with melodrama and typically sentimental storytelling devices. Dering has brought a grittiness to this production that mitigates its sometimes treacly tale. The staging is rough-and-tumble, and the excellent live band's arrangements more raucous than any Blood Brothers cast recording I've heard.

On opening night, the cast — particularly Kimberlee Hart as rich mom Mrs. Lyons and Anny Franklin as Linda, who plays a child and a young woman with equal honesty — performed as if they'd been presenting this show for years. In the leads, Stew Jetson and Devon Nickel are beguiling and in fine voice, and Damon J. Bolling manages to elevate his ghoulish Narrator from a stereotype to a truly menacing creature.

And then there's Johanna Carlisle. I spent a good part of the evening trying to remember if I'd ever heard Carlisle sing before, and finally decided that I couldn't have forgotten a voice so big and pure and full of character as hers. I've been a fan of Carlisle's ever since I witnessed her single scene in a dreadful, long-since-forgotten play in which she screamed into a telephone at her son. She does some hollering at her boy in Blood Brothers, too, but this time she's doing it on a superbly designed set, in as stunning a voice as I've heard on a local stage in a very long time. She plays every emotion known to man, never drops her working-class British accent, and wrings both laughter and tears from her audience, which stood for her on opening night. Carlisle's performance in Blood Brothers is magnificent.

In both his Director's Notes and his charming opening-night curtain speech, Dering praised audiences for supporting Nearly Naked's risky brand of theater. But with this production, Dering and company have perhaps unwittingly proved they can do more than quirky little shows that mainstream companies are afraid to touch. Here, on the cusp of its 11th year, is a theater company that can pretty much do anything.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela