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A CurtainUp Review
The Cradle Will Rock
By Elyse Sommer
Cradle. . does occasional surface in short run revivals such as the defunct Cocteau Company's production almost twenty years ago and the star-studded concert version in 201e —from Encores!. However, it's best known for the brouhaha surrounding its 1937 Broadway opening when the House Un-American Activities Committee slashed the Federal Theatre Project's funding and 21-year-old director Orson Welles saved the day. And, more people know it courtesy of the sprawling 1999 movie that focused on the play's framework (see details in our film and tv feature archives) interspersed with bits and pieces from the play.
Clearly the time is ripe for a revival to give theater goers a chance to see how Blitzstein's unapoletic agitprop piece holds up in our current agitprop rife zeitgeist— and to see how compatible the dissonance of his compositions are with our contemporary musical theater book and song writers.
Blitzstein's book is dated in that it revolves around the type of factory town that has undergone drastic changes. Those laboring in steel mills who did "rock the cradle" to unionize and thrive for many years have been replaced by low-paid workers on far away foreign soil. And the villain-in-chief, Mister-Mister, has moved from Steeltown to the White House where he has persuaded and bullied his hanger-ons to hold on to their power by keeping the worker Joes they've bamboozled from making the cradle rock. While Blitzstein's villains tend to come off as two-dimensional cartoon figures, the same can be seen on our television and ipod screens every day.
The Cradle Will Rock is not a feel-good musical. So don't expect the mostly sung-through score to have you tapping your feet or exit the Classic Stage humming. But the cast John Doyle has assembled for his typically Doyl-ish production will pull you into the power of the gritty score as sung by the actors and the many characters they inhabit in just 90 minutes.
As he has since becoming CSC's Artistic Director, Mr. Doyle, like his actors, does double duty— in this case as designer as well as director. And that design is typically spare, with a bunch of barrels the main props. The audience also again surrounds the long playing area on three sides. Thus, one short section serves as the upstage area from which the players move forward as needed.
As has always been the case with this piece, the singers are accompanied by a one man band, an upright piano. However, while there's no need here for cast members to not just act but to play the various instruments, quite a few of them take turns at that piano. And they do move those barrels around to keep things rocking along briskly.
Each of the ten scenes begins with the pianist and the ensemble announcing where in Steeltown we'll next meet one or a group of the haves and have-nots whose monologues and interactions drive the plot.
These narrated and sung vignettes begin on a street corner where we meet Molly (Lara Pulver), a young woman driven by hunger to become a streetwalker. Subsequent scenes bring on the a villainous Mr Mister (David Garrison) and his family which includes son Junior Mister (Eddie Cooper) who may well have us thinking about Don Trump Junior.
The townspeople Mr. Mister bribes and bullies into joining his union and truth busting Liberty Committee include Reverend Salvation (Eddie Cpp[er, again), Editor Daily (Ken Barnett), Doctor Specialist (Benjamin Elakeley).
Three of the most memorable scenes find a group of steelworkers in Nightcourt, the final one climaxing with union organizer Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbek) delivering his impassioned call to actualize the play's title. Mr. Doyle has staged some of these Nightcout scenes as stunning group portraits reminiscent of John Rogers' famous sculptures. These visual coups are further enhanced by lighting designers Jane Cox and Tess James.
Everyone segues effortlessly and effectively from character to character. Even Broadway musical star Tony Yazbek multi tasks, most notably as a druggist turned derelict after his son is killed. The problem is —and it is a problem— that, except for Yazbek's shift from grieving street walker to rabble rousing steel worker, costume designer Anne Hould-Ward hasn't been encouraged to add at least a few touches to keep the multiple role playing from becoming confusing.
While The Cradle Will Rock tends to come off as a sermon more than an entertainment, the finely sung songs make up for this. And this production does fit John Doyle's vision for theater more reliant on its actors' talent and versatility than more elaborate stagecraft.
Ultimately, my biggest disappointment was that it wasn't hopelessly dated, but undeniably relevant.
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The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein
Directed by John Doyle
Cast (alphabetical order): Ken Barnett, Eddie Cooper, Benjamin Elakeley), David Garrison), Ian Lowe, Kara Mikula,Lara Pulver, Sally Ann Triplett, Rema Webb,Tony Yazbeck.
Scenic designer: John Doyle
Costume designer: Anne Hould-Ward
Lighting designers: Jane Cox and Tess James
Music supervisor Greg Jarrett
Running Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission
Classic Stage 136 E. 13th Street
From 3/21/19; opening 4/03/19; closing 5/19/19
Tues.–Thurs. at 7pm, Fri.–Sat. at 8pm, and Sat.–Sun. at 2pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 28th press preview
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