Strong performances elevate Pennsylvania Playhouse's "Blood Brothers," a particularly British show that feels more like a play with music than a traditional musical.

The Willy Russell tuner delves into similar territory as his non-musical plays "Shirley Valentine" and "Educating Rita" - exploring the effects of the English class system.

In "Blood Brothers," which takes place during the economic downturn of Thatcher-era Britain, explores what happens when a pair of twins are separated and one is brought up in a struggling working class family, while the other enjoys a privileged upper-class upbringing.

The musical opens with both the twins dead so there is no doubt of the outcome and the rest of the show is a flashback that works it way to the opening tragedy.blood brothers

The emotional center of the show is Heather Reese as Mrs. Johnstone, the birth mother of the twins who gives one away to the well-to-do but infertile Mrs. Lyons.

Despite the narrator intoning during the overture that Mrs. Johnstone's heart is made of stone, Reese's Mrs. Johnstone is warm and caring. The decision to give up one of the twin is wrenching for her and it is only through the manipulation of Mrs. Lyons that she doesn't renege on the deal.

Reese makes the audience empathize with Mrs. Johnstone, who is left pregnant and with seven children when her husband leaves her. She is appealing and positive despite her situation. Reese has a strong clear voice that does well on songs filled with heartbreak like "Marilyn Monroe," "Easy Terms" and "Tell Me It's Not True."

Anchoring the production are the skillful performances of the twins. Ian Gilkeson embodies the working class Mickey, giving him a brash joyfulness that is contagious. Gilkeson successfully conveys the physicality and playfullness of a seven-year-old in one number despite have to talk in rhyming couplets.

As the well-to-do twin Eddie, Thomas Kennebeck is a bit more reserved but enthusiastic. The two men who must portray the twins at age 7, 14 and then as adults, have good chemistry and their voices blend well in the poignant "Long Sunday Afternoon" and "That Guy."

Rody Gilkeson gives his all, belting with gusto, as the narrator, a role that feels somewhat gratuitous and whose appearance repeatedly pounds home that things will not end well.

Elizabeth Marsh-Gilkeson is a brittle Mrs. Lyons and Seth Rohrbach is chilly as the uninvolved Mr. Lyons.

Taylor Van Kooten is a delightful Linda, the animated girl both twins love.

Tyler Fernandez plays Mickey's ne'er-do-well older brother with just the right touch of nonchalance.

The show has a lot of references to uniquely British institutions such as the superstition of not putting new shoes on a table.

Director Bill Mutimer keeps the action moving briskly in the nearly three hour show.

Brett Olivera's spare set serves well at suggesting the mostly low-rent environment.

Matthew Trovato leads the tuneful eight-piece orchestra.

The show is not recommended for children under age 12 due to mature themes.

"Blood Brothers" continues at 7:30 p.m. June 9, 10, 15, 16, 17 and 6 p.m. June 11 and 16. Pennsylvania Playhouse, Illick's Mill Road, Bethlehem. Tickets are $25, adults and $22 for students and seniors (except on Saturday). Info: 610-865-6665,