By Harry Forbes
After immersing myself in the 2018 release of Opera Saratoga’s fully orchestrated “The Cradle Will Rock” CD, with John Mauceri conducting Marc Blitzstein’s original orchestrations, I feared this pared down piano-only version might sound undernourished, especially as, additionally, some of the cast -- dressed drably in overalls by designer Ann Hould-Ward as Steeltown, USA, factory workers -- takes on as many as two or three roles apiece. Even the last New York production -- part of Encores’ summer series -- used an orchestra, albeit a reduced one with new orchestrations.
But, in fact, the historically important -- albeit very much “of its time” -- pro-unionism agitprop piece manages to build in power as it goes along, with the well-chosen cast more than up to the task of doubling and tripling roles, with only occasional confusion about which part each is currently playing.
Of course, the 1937 Federal Theater Project premiere, was famously staged by Orson Welles with the actors in the audience, and the composer on stage at the piano, in order to skirt sudden Federal restrictions imposed on them. The stated reason was budget cuts but was more likely to do with the strong anti-capitalist theme. So a traditional stage performance in the planned theater was necessarily scuttled, and another venue quickly secured. All of these extraordinary events were dramatized in the 1999 Tim Robbins film “Cradle Will Rock.” (And, fascinatingly, you can Blitzstein relate the story in his own words on the aforementioned CD.)
Unabashedly pro-labor, the work is peopled with prototypes -- doctor, professors, prostitute, newspaper editor, artists, reverend -- who have come under the dishonorable sway of the powerful steel magnate Mr. Mister, who gets his devious way at every turn through bribery. He’s convincingly played here by musical theater veteran David Garrison, blithely scattering cash with every encounter.
Most of the town’s top citizens are mistakenly jailed in the opening scene, and while waiting for Mr. Mister to release them, recall how they came to sell out to him and join his so-called Liberty Committee. The prostitute (Moll) is among them, but the trade she plies is born of need, whereas all the others have shamelessly sold out their integrity for reasons of greed or lust for power.
The hardworking and accomplished cast also includes Ken Barnett as Editor Daily, Eddie Cooper as Junior Mister, Benjamin Eakeley as Reverend Salvation, Ian Lowe as Yasha, Kara Mikula as Sister Mister, Lara Pulver as Moll, Sally Ann Triplett as Mrs. Mister, Rema Webb as Ella, and Tony Yazbeck as Larry Foreman.
The production was directed by CSC Artistic Director John Doyle, and at first glance, you might think he has eschewed his familiar device of the performers playing their own instruments. After all, no one’s carrying around a tuba or bass fiddle. But wait; actually four of the principals in this ensemble cast -- Barnett, Eakeley, Lowe, and Mikula -- are taking turns at the keyboard (and playing quite well, too), under the musical supervision of Greg Jarrett.
The score is strongly influenced by Kurt Weill, though arguably, not nearly as distinctive. Upon exiting the theater, I found myself humming “Surabaya Johnny” rather than anything in “Cradle.” But the songs -- a stylistically mixed bag -- are accomplished in their own way.
Pulver gets the show’s most famous number, “Nickel Under the Foot,” which she does superbly. (PBS viewers may recall her turn as Gypsy Rose Lee in the Imelda Staunton “Gypsy” which aired in 2016.) Another English musical theater pro Triplett makes a commanding Mrs. Mister, tirelessly conniving to get support for her husband. Yazbeck is especially powerful as union organizer Foreman, his performance culminating in an impassioned plea to the cast (and the audience) for justice and equality, as he reprises the title song. He’s also touching as Harry Druggist consumed with guilt over a betrayal of his son. Another vocal highlight is Webb’s “Joe Worker” number. But each of the cast does well in his or her solo pieces.
High-powered corruption and lower-class oppression are still, of course, very much with us so, in general terms, the themes of “The Cradle Will Rock” will always resonate, but the work still registers more as a period piece.
Doyle himself created the spare design, with expert lighting by Jane Cox and Tess James.
(Classic Stage Company (136 E 13th St, New York) classicstage.org or 212-352-3101; through May 19)
Photos by Joan Marcus:
Top: Lara Pulver, Kara Mikula, Benjamin Eakeley, Tony Yazbeck, Ian Lowe
Lower: Rema Webb, Sally Ann Triplett, Ian Lowe
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