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Paulanne Simmons

"The Cradle Will Rock" shakes the house

Raul Esparza as Larry Foreman in "The Cradle Will Rock" at New York City Center. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Cradle Will Rock
Directed by Sam Gold
New York City Center
131 West 55 Street
July 10 - 13, 2013
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons July 12, 2013

“The Cradle Will Rock,” a 1937 musical by Marc Blitzstein, has a momentous place in theater history. It was a very early concept musical, which Blitzstein called “a labor opera composed in a style that falls somewhere between realism, romance, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert and Sullivan, Brecht, and agit-prop.” Later musicals, such as “Cabaret,” “Pippin,” “Chicago” and most of Sondheim’s work owe much to Blitzstein’s pioneering work.

But The Cradle Will Rock is important for other reasons as well. Produced with John Houseman by the Federal Theatre Project, and directed by Orson Welles, the show’s controversial nature frightened the institutional powers of the day. On June 16, opening night, the theater was padlocked and armed guards prevented Welles and Houseman from removing sets, costumes or props and taking them elsewhere. Actors’ Equity and the musician’s union were not helpful.

Welles and Houseman were determined that the show go on and decided to move it to another theater, where the actors would sit in the audience and perform their roles from the house, with Blitzstein onstage at the piano. At 8:50pm, the show began at the Venice (rental fee $100). As some of the actors were not on board with the new plan, afraid they might lose their jobs with the Federal Theatre Project, Blitzstein sang eight of the roles while actors doubled up on others.

Eventually Welles resigned from the Federal Theatre Project, Houseman was fired for insubordination and the two men formed the Mercury Theatre, produced The Cradle Will Rock all over New York City and sent it on tour in other cities.

Anika Noni Rose as Moll in "The Cradle Will Rock" at New York City Center. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Cradle Will Rock is not a frequently revived show. Yet in our times when the very small percentage of unionized workers face opposition in many states across the country, unemployment remains high and the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, the situation and characters in The Cradle Will Rock seem uncomfortably familiar. And so it is timely and appropriate that the inaugural musical of City Center’s Encores! Off-Center series should bf The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Sam Gold.

The musical takes place in the mythical Steeltown and is about the moral battle between a union organizer, Larry Foreman (Raul Esparza) and the powerful and heartless capitalist Mr. Mister (Danny Burstein) who holds the town in his grip. Much of the action takes place in a jail, where many of the town’s inhabitants have ended up after a police roundup.

Through confusion and incompetence, some of these people are members of the Liberty Committee made up of the town’s upper crust. Among the others in the jail are Moll (Anika Noni Rose), a down-and-out prostitute, and Harry Druggist (David Friedman), arrested for vagrancy, having lost his business, thanks to Mr. Mister.

Through flashbacks and encounters in the jail, we learn how Mr. Mister has corrupted most of Steeltown. Reverend Salvation (Matthew Saldívar) has been persuaded to support war so industry will profit. Harry Druggist was strong-armed into remaining quiet about the murder of a union worker. When a worker died in a machine accident, Doctor Specialist (Elisa Davis) reported that he was drunk. Editor Daily (Judy Kuhn, totally believable despite the gender bending) gave Mr. Mister’s useless son (Henry Stram) a job in Honolulu where he wouldn’t embarrass his father.

The hero of the day (or night) is Foreman who rallies, comforts and delivers the moral and the warning in the title song. The cradle is rocking, the workers are rising and the days of the powerful are approaching an end. If only!

Blitzstein’s score, heavily influenced by European composers, from classical to cabaret, is well-served by the 14-piece orchestra, which sits behind the actors. Whether it’s Burstein bursting with pomposity, or Esperanza alive with fiery indignation, the songs are performed with splendid feeling.

Despite the fact that this is a concert performance, The Cradle Will Rock abounds with energy, irony and anger. It would be great to see it expanded into a full-scale production.


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