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A CurtainUp Review
The Cradle Will Rock
By Elyse Sommer
Marc Blitzstein's operatic musical, The Cradle Will Rock, is something of an artifact. Its 1930s agit-prop story about the steelworkers versus the steel tycoons and large cast have discouraged all but occasional productions -- like the very fine one put on by the NYU drama school three or four years ago, and the spirited rendition currently at the Jean Cocteau Repertory.
Coming as it does on the heels of Tim Robbins' film based on the drama surrounding The Cradle Will Rock's original production, the Cocteau revival is a rare opportunity to see, not just bits and pieces sandwiched into a film, but the musical in its entirety. I'm pleased to report that there isn't the slightest aroma of mothballs about David Fuller's staging. Propelled by a cast of 27 characters played by 14 actors, Blitzstein's Brechtian score and sharp lyrics, Cradle rocks along briskly for two enjoyable hours. Its appeal is not limited to students of that period or those old enough to remember the 1930s battles to unionize factories -- a statement confirmed by the diverse audience at last Saturday evening's performance.
If you've been to the Cocteau, you'll probably wonder how Fuller manages a musical on its miniscule stage, let alone one with a hefty cast and multiple scene changes. But trust me, he does, using the aisles and, during the first scene, even the fire exit (one can't help worrying for the actors forced to navigate these entrances during a rainy night). His actors interact on Mark Fitzgibbons' simple but flexible set design without any sense of crowding. Thanks to Barbara Brandt there are even some smart bits of choreography -- not Chicago or Fosse, mind you, but fun. Those called on to play multiple parts segue from one role to another with the same seamless ease as a few simple prop tricks transform the night court where they all come together into various other locales .
Cocteau veterans -- Elise Stone, Craig Smith, (Mr. and Mrs. Smith off-stage) and Harris Berlinsky -- provide rich portraits of a young woman driven by hunger to become a streetwalker, the villain of the piece, Mr. Mister and a druggist turned derelict after his son is killed. While great singing isn't this show's main attraction, Ms Stone, as she proved previously as Mother Courage (see link below) knows how to put over a moody song and gets to sing the show's major hits.
One of the company's younger members, the very personable Jason Crowl, makes a late but most impressive entry as the passionate union organizer Larry Foreman. He has a particularly powerful moment, when he seems to be tempted by Mr. Mister's attempt to bribe him to join his Liberty Committee. That committee consisting of various people who've been sucked in by the scheming anti-unionist, is the chorus that delivers the ensemble numbers with great panache. The ensemble members also shine in other parts. A Cocteau guest artist, Taylor Bowyer (his key role is that of Reverend Salvation), and intern Kyra Himmelbaum (also in several parts) not only act well but raise the overall quality of the vocal talent. Angela Madden, a pink-suited, pill box hatted Jackie Kennedy dress-alike but not look-alike, is delightfully maddening, as Mr. Mister's air-headed wife. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
As Blitzstein was a one man band originally, so Charles Berrgan ably recreates the sense of the original as musical director and on scene pianist (he even takes a turn as a court clerk). Many of the numbers brought resounding applause. When the Liberty Committee finally reclaims its integrity and joins the workers for the explosive climax, even the most cynical members of the audience seemed to have put aside thoughts of how real life has not always followed this happy ending. To give this contagious enthusiasm a special and very spontaneous twist, no sooner had the actors exited, than a man in the middle of the orchestra got up and asked everyone to join him in "The Internationale" -- the song once de rigueur at any left-wing gathering. And by golly, a large number joined in and raised their arms in a fist!
Since I was out of town when the show opened, this review comes a bit late -- but not too late for you to see it. Blitzstein enthusiasts might want to try to book it on September 15th and stay for a special Blitzstein 11 p.m. concert in the Cocteau's cabaret space. The performers will be Blitzstein specialists Helene Williams and Ronald Edwards, accompanied on the piano by Leonard Lehrman who directed, re-orchestrated and conducted The Cradle Will Rock at Harvard in 1996.