Review - Encores! Brings Back Revolutionary 'The Cradle Will Rock'

By: Jul. 12, 2013
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It's a bit ironic that an actress' brave act in defiance of her union helped propel the already controversial opening night of a pro-union protest musical into legendary status.

That night in 1937 Marc Blitzstein was a little known composer, lyricist and bookwriter who became the first, and hopefully only playwright to see the United States government padlock a theatre and send guards to prevent the performance of his new show. The Cradle Will Rock was originally championed by Hallie Flanagan, Director of the WPA's Federal Theatre Project, which used government funds to create work for theatre artists during the Great Depression. John Houseman was set to produce the Project's premiere of the piece, which would be staged by 22-year-old hotshot director Orson Welles, who had burst onto the scene a year earlier with his all-black mounting of Macbeth.

Blitzstein described The Cradle Will Rock as "a labor opera composed in a style that falls somewhere between realism, romance, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert and Sullivan, Brecht and agitprop." Some government officials, especially those tied to the interests of corporate America, might have described it as dangerous Communist propaganda that could help incite a revolt among the unemployed.

Less than a week before the scheduled opening, the WPA announced budget cuts that would halt the creation of any new projects. Since The Cradle Will Rock was ready to open, it was assumed the new musical would not be affected. But three days before opening night the theatre was padlocked and occupied by security guards to ensure that no costumes, sheet music or scenery - all government property - would be removed.

While Blitzstein, Houseman and Welles were scrambling to find a new theatre, both the actors' and musicians' unions declare that since the WPA was no longer producing the musical, their members would have to be signed to standard commercial contracts in order to stay with it; something Houseman could not afford.

So when a new theatre was secured, the plan was to have Blitzstein, who was not a union member, just sit on stage at a piano and sing and narrate the show by himself. The opening scene begins with a solo female voice singing a lonely ballad, and very shortly after Blitzstein began, audience members noticed another voice singing along with him. It was actress Olive Stanton, who was originally cast in the role, singing from her theatre seat. Her brave decision to play her part from the house, never setting foot on stage, inspired her castmates to do the same, and they spent the night improvising their staging throughout the auditorium. While the spirit of their union's restriction was defied, the letter of it, like the stage, remained untouched. The performance made headlines and The Cradle Will Rock, with the actors now permitted to trod the boards, eventually transferred to a Broadway run.

Blitzstein was only 32 years old when Cradle opened; younger than Jonathan Larson would have been on the opening night of Rent. And in many ways Cradle can be thought of as the 1930s answer to that 1990s landmark. Both authors took their inspiration from an established master - Sondheim for Larson, Brecht for Blitzstein - and both musicals are infused with raw energy that makes a loud statement about a rebellious class of Americans. Blitzstein indeed combined moments of realism, vaudeville, Brechtian detachment and other theatrical forms in his episodic story that continually shifted tone. And like Larson he composed in the rebellious style of his time - jazz that teetered from cool riffs to classical syncopation - while dipping into a variety of other modes. His balance between spoken book dialogue and sung recitative is striking in its dramatic effectiveness. As seen through the eyes of 1937, The Cradle Will Rock was a revolutionary achievement in making a clear separation between American musical theatre and European-born music theatre forms.

Simply put, the story is set in Steeltown, U.S.A., where nearly everyone's personal economy depends on the non-union factory owned by the brutish and insensitive Mr. Mister. It's the night of a union rally led by the passionate and charismatic Larry Foreman, but on the other side of town a poor, underemployed young woman named Moll (Olive Stanton's role) is arrested while trying to prostitute herself for spare change. In night court she meets Harry Druggist, whose life was ruined when he felt cornered into participating in one of Mr. Mister's ruthless dealings. The bulk of the musical is a series of vignettes where Harry explains to Moll who the real prostitutes are; the local newspaper editor, clergyman, doctor, educator and artists who sell out to Mr. Mister and his wife, Mrs. Mister, to promote their propaganda, exploit workers and put down any attempts to organize employees.

Encores! has enlisted an excellent ensemble of musical theatre actors for its concert staging of the piece, led by Anika Noni Rose doubling as Moll and Mrs. Mister, Raul Esparza as Larry Foreman, Danny Burstein as Mr. Mister and Peter Friedman as Harry Druggist. Josh Clayton's orchestrations for conductor Chris Fenwick's fourteen musicians nicely emulate a period sound. The singing and acting is of consistently high quality but unfortunately, several of Sam Gold's directorial decisions serve to diminish the musical's power.

The ancient Greek quipster Diogenes supplies the elegantly inscribed quote that is projected over the musicians for the show's 90-minute duration: "In the rich man's house the only place to spit is in his face."

But beneath, the actors are all dressed in black tie and formal gowns, the traditional garb for a concert performance where company members sit onstage in chairs until their parts are called for. If Gold is making a satirical point, beyond the satire that's already in the text, it isn't clear. Disbelief can be suspended when Rose opens the evening as Moll, dressed to the nines, singing of how weak and tired she is while walking the streets trying to earn money for food, but when Gold places her before City Center's red curtain under a spotlight for "Nickel Under The Foot," the presentation seems more suited for a big, glamorous torch ballad than for Blitzstein's cynical march about daily disappointments.

Though Rose is touching as the tough but naïve Moll, she's better framed in her comical turn as the culturally dim but politically savvy Mrs. Mister, who slips generous contributions to Reverend Salvation (a nicely slick Matthew Saldivar) in exchange for sermons promoting the politics that best serves the steel industry and funds the careers of concert musician Yasha (Michael Moran) and painter Dauber (Henry Stram) in exchange for their social patronage.

Moran and Dauber are a crack vaudeville team as the rival artists, but Gold has them overplaying the Mister children (Stram as Junior Mister and Moran in a dress as Sister Mister) as caricatures that overwhelm the cleverness of the text with broad gags.

Burstein is excellent as the brash and bullying Mr. Mister, but the perfectly cast Esparza completely dominates the room once his character enters in the late stages of the game. Spewing period jargon with cocky confidence and confronting adversaries with a devilish gleam, it's easy to see his Foreman stirring crowds with hope for a better future through unionization. His rousing rendition of the title anthem halts without a break for applause, an odd choice for a character who is essentially making a rallying speech, but Gold does allow the audience to respond with loud appreciation for Da'Vine Joy Randolph's chilling performance of "Joe Worker Gets Gypped."

Despite staging choices that keep the actors from emotionally connecting, instances where it's hard to tell exactly who's talking and awkward transitions through the musical's various styles, the talented company - which also includes Judy Kuhn, David Margulies, Michael Park, Robert Petroff and young Aidan Gemme playing the grown-up role of a tough but confused cop - allows Blitzstein's moments of brilliance and sharp commentary to burst through.

The Cradle Will Rock helped change American theatre, but many will leave the Encores! production thinking little has changed in American politics.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Anika Noni Rose; Center: Raul Esparza; Bottom: Danny Burstein.

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