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First Nighter: Blitzstein's 1937 "Cradle Will Rock" Rocks 2013 Encores! Off-Center

07/11/2013 06:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2013

The cast of the Encores! Off-Center concert production of Marc Blitzstein's once highly controversial first musical The Cradle Will Rock are dressed in Clint Ramos's formal attire. The look, apparently chosen by the habitually iconoclastic director Sam Gold, is certainly nothing like what the original cast was intended to wear when the Federal Theatre Project's production was stopped from opening at the (now demolished) Maxine Elliott Theatre and then did a day later (and 20 blocks farther uptown at the Venice) on June 16, 1937. That historic night the actors were speaking their lines and singing their songs in the audience--and definitely not in tuxedos and gowns.
The explanation for Gold's surprising City Center decision is likely that he understands there's no point in expecting contemporary audiences to insert themselves fully into the context of the times when Blitzstein, having worshipped at intrepid satirist and emigré Kurt Well's knee, became so incensed over the obstacles placed in the way of union organization that he did the only thing he knew how to do: express his outrage in words and music.
That may be why Gold's presenting the work of art as simply as he does is so completely effective. The audience is treated to a period piece concerning management's forcible objections to unionization that takes a black-and-white view (are the tuxedos here symbolic?) of parlous late Depression times. It's one, however, that unquestionably retains the power to incite unrest through its timeless characters and Blitzstein's scathing Brechtian words and Weill-esque music.
The 10 scenes--billboarded as they come along--follow Steeltown U. S. A.'s tyrannical Mr. Mister (Danny Burstein) as he rides roughshod over rich friends who've joined his "Liberty" committee. (Okay, you Patriot Act denouncers, the appropriation of the word "liberty" couldn't be more up-to-date). At the same time, bombastic Mr. Mister traduces Reverend Salvation (Matthew Saldivar), Editor Daily (Judy Kuhn) and Dr. Specialist (Eisa Davis). Foremost among those he fails to turn are union organizer Larry Foreman (Raul Esparza) and tough but naïve streetwalker Moll (Anika Noni Rose).
Yes, the character names are a tip-off to the broad spoofing that goes on, but in no way does it dilute the tragic moments, the most moving of which involves Harry Druggist (Peter Friedman), who's coerced by Mr. Mister henchman Bugs (Michael Park) into going along with a crime and thereby endangering the life of his son Steve (game young Aidan Gemme, who also appears as a tough cop). Keep in mind the send-up can and does rise to higher planes when Michael Moran as Yasha (think Heifetz) and Henry Stram as Dauber (think Picasso) court Mrs. Mister (Rose) for her patronage in the song nastily called "Art for Art's Sake."
As for the rest of the score--conducted by Chris Fenwick fronting a14-member orchestra--Blitzstein hardly fashioned its tunes with radio play foremost in his mind. Nonetheless, the exhortatory title anthem, sung by Larry Foreman--as is the mocking "Leaflets"--and Moll's "Nickel Under Your Foot" grab ears and don't let go. When Da'Vine Joy Randolph, who's been sitting stage right doing less that the others, steps forward as Ella Hammer to sing "Joe Worker" about her deceased husband, she delivers an 11 o'clock number (in a 90-minute, intermissionless work) that puts many another 11 o'clock number to shame.
As impressive as Randolph is, she's also an example of how well this Cradle Will Rock has been cast. You can't do too much better these days than round up musical veterans Esparza, Burstein, Kuhn, Rose, Friedman, Saldivar, Park, Gemme, David Margulies and Robert Petkoff. I don't think I've ever heard either Moran or Stram sing, but they're stalwarts as well, and as vaudeville hoofers (choreographed by Chase Brock) in the "Art for Art's Sake" number, they're show-stoppers. When the entire cast sings together, not only the cradle rocks. So does the room.
It's possible that in the intervening years the facts of that postponed--and intended-to-be-canceled--opening night may have become blurred. It wasn't opposing factions that banned the Orson Welles-John Houseman production from debuting, it was the supposedly sympathetic WPA (Workers Progress Administration), whose, uh, management was fearful that the production would endanger the organization's other endeavors.
That jaw-dropping irony may be exactly what has motivated the ever-thinking Gold to stage his closing as he does. And here comes a description that readers better regard as a spoiler, although it's inexorably germane to Blitzstein's material. As the cast is chanting the closing number, stagehands undoubtedly meant to remind patrons of the aborted opening scramble over the stage to grab microphones from the ensemble and remove some of their clothes.
Gold may or may not have another intention. He could be hoping ticket buyers will think about the compromising power that unions have taken on in the intervening decades. Certainly, Broadway unions have acquired the kind of might they didn't have in 1937. At the very least that pertinent Manhattan development serves as a partial reminder that boss-worker relations in 2013 aren't the same as they were almost 80 years ago. Which isn't to say that today's Wisconsin doesn't have its own Mr. Mister in union-squelching Governor Scott Walker.
And if The Cradle Will Rock has to be appreciated with evolving attitudes uppermost, it still can--without reservation--be appreciated.
(Theater history lovers, take note: Clifford Odets's first play, Waiting for Lefty, which follows ugly events leading to a strike, was produced by the Group Theatre in 1935. Harold Rome's revue, Pins and Needles, about and with garment workers, was produced only five months after The Cradle Will Rock. Moreover, Blitzstein's rousing title ditty talks about changes in the weather long before the activist Weathermen Underground appropriated Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" lyric about not needing a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. Students, compare and contrast all the forgoing information.)