The Review: CSC’s The Cradle Will Rock
Know your history, that is my first piece of advice if… no… when you go see Classic Stage Company‘s mesmerizingly sing-song sonata of a play, The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein (Regina, The Airborne Symphony) because in a way, I wish I had read up on that first production back in 1937 when this “play in music” originally was staged by the Federal Theatre Project. Orson Welles, who directed, and John Housman were the original producers, forcefully pushing with all their might to get this Brechtian allegory of corruption and greed onto the stage. The account of that crazy moment when the WPA (Works Progress Administration) tried to shut down the project just a few days before it was set to open on Broadway is mind-blowingly amazing, and should be a play or musical of its own. Back on June 16, 1937, to avoid government and union restrictions, the show was performed in a found ‘just-in-the-nick-of-time’ theatre with Blitzstein playing a rented piano onstage all by himself, and the cast members singing their parts from the audience. From Wikipedia:
“While in their final rehearsal, anticipating the opening of this musical, they received an order that banned any new productions from being performed until further notice. John Houseman and Orson Welles… claimed that they were still going to perform their musical because too much work has gone into it to simply cancel the musical all together. Three days before the intended opening day, a dozen security guards invaded the theater and occupied all the areas to make sure that the show would not go on. The security guards also made sure that they would not be able to use the scenery or the costumes. The unions that the orchestra and actors were part of demanded that they draw up new contracts in order for them to perform, demanding more money. This production was running on an extremely low-budget to begin with, therefore, they were not able to meet their orders. On the morning of the intended opening night, the small group that was left stood in the basement of their theater realizing they did not have an orchestra, costumes, scenery, actors, or a theater to put on the performance. At this point, many people would have given up, however, John Houseman and Orson Welles were determined to give their audience a show. They sent someone with a five dollar bill to go out and find a piano. She then rented a truck to load the piano on and waited for further instructions. Twenty minutes before the show was supposed to begin, several hundred customers were crowded in the street eagerly waited for the show to start. There were many doubts about whether or not the show would be performed that night. Just when they were about to lose hope, a man told them that he had found a theater that they could use. They informed the crowd and the rest of the group that they would be moving theaters and told them to all bring a friend because this theater was three times bigger than their original theater. At the beginning of the performance, John Houseman and Orson Welles explained what the show would have looked like with a full cast, scenery, and costumes. The musical begun with Marc Blitzstein alone on stage with the piano. As the musical continued, Blitzstein was joined in singing by an actor in the audience. The actors were forbidden to perform on stage by their unions, however, there was no law against audience participation. The whole musical was performed by the actors from the audience using different parts of the theater, besides the stage, and engaging the audience the whole way through. Every person who was part of this musical had to face countless challenges before the show could be performed, however, they persevered and it paid off…”
An astounding story. One that sets the stage dynamically for this interesting and thought provoking revival solidly directed by John Doyle (CSC’s Pacific Overtures) in his typical and simple manner. He strips the scenery away in ode to that original determined group of actors, placing metal barrels on the Classic Stage Company’s stage with clarity, matched by the telling (almost too stereotypical) period costumes by Ann Hould-Ward (CSC’s Dead Poets Society), and the strong and straight forward lighting by Jane Cox (Broadway’s True West) and Tess James (Asolo Rep’s Roe). “Steeltown, USA” flows forward with defiant energy, chronicling the efforts of Larry Foreman, portrayed with power and force by the captivating Tony Yazbeck (Broadway’s Prince of Broadway, Vineyard’s The Beast in the Jungle), in his efforts to unionize the town’s workers in bold rebellion to the greedy and powerful businessman Mr. Mister. The man who symbolizes all that is wrong with America is played perfectly by David Garrison (Broadway’s The Visit) has all these characters waiting for his money granting salvation. He is the man with the wads of cash flowing outward, confidently believing that to control the town’s factory, press, church and social organization all he must do is throw fist fulls of dollar bills at their leaders to make them bend and yield. And it works, sadly, quite well, especially back within the hardships of the Great Depression when the desperate plea the compromising statement, “whichever side will pay the price“. It’s even more perplexing to see the parallels between the time when this play was first produced under the extraordinary circumstances of 1937 and our own current political mess and corruption of the American administration holding the reins in Washington, D.C..
With Mr. Mister watching over the lot, the cast attempt to flesh out the politics and rebellious positions with inventive staging and almost vaudevillian dexterity. Being bought and sold with an ease by the bills thrown by Mister on the floor, Ken Barnett (PH’s The Light Years) as the Editor Daily/President Prexy, Sally Ann Triplett (Broadway’s Finding Neverland) as Mrs. Mister/Professor Mamie, Ian Lowe (LCT’s Nikolai & The Others) as Professor Scoot/Yasha/Steve, and Rema Webb (Broadway’s Escape to Margaritaville) as Dauber/Ella Hammer grab hold and do the musical piece justice, singing and encompassing the material with a determined glee. Benjamin Eakeley (Broadway’s She Loves Me) as the Reverend Salvation shines through with his heavenly singing and stage presence, as does Eddie Cooper (CSC’s Arturo Ul) as Junior Mister/Dr. Specialist, and Kara Mikula (Pre-Broadway’s SpongeBob…) as Sister Mister/Professor Trixie with their wild ride around the stage, dramatically swinging and boating with abandonment. Lara Pulver (West End’s Gypsy) inhabits the The Moll/Sadie with clear-eyed composure especially in the heart-felt moments with Yazbeck. And Yazbeck is, as always, wondrous and touching, especially in his alternate role of the good-natured Harry Druggist. The Polish love song dilemma with his son left me aching. And I couldn’t help hoping Yazbeck and Doyle would add to the emotional concoction by letting Harry move his body into dance, an arena Yazbeck dominates. His graceful limbs seem to be just moments or inches away from doing so to the beat of music director, Greg Jarrett’s (Broadway’s Gigi) solid structuring, but sadly, the dancer’s legs never did take that one step forward. Staying firmly planted with a solidness and sincerity that worked just as well. Maybe.
Radically thinking, this aspect might be the missing piece in this compelling production of The Cradle Will Rock. And although actually adding ballet movement might not be the key to this dramatic play with music, the passion and emotional depth of what dance might have brought to the thesis on corruption and resistance is what this CSC production is lacking. The blood of the desperate isn’t pounding in their veins, except for maybe the final moments courtesy of Yazbeck’s Larry Foreman. The singing registers beautifully, the dance of the staging entertains (particularly the artist’s tango), the enthusiasm of the cast resonates, but the heart of the piece never pumps with the same power of what that first rebellious production had to endure. In that history, The Cradle soars like an eagle hunting, where as this production floats nicely just underneath like a song bird looking for a nice scenic perch to sit out the turmoil.