Theater review: ‘The Cradle Will Rock’

By Elizabeth Maupin

The opening night of The Cradle Will Rock, in 1937, was one theatrical event that has gone down in history – and deservedly so.

The production’s original backer, the federally financed WPA, apparently succumbed to political pressure and had the theater padlocked in an effort to shut the show down. But producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles did not give in. They hired a larger theater 30 blocks north, bought a $5 piano, coaxed their ticketholders to come along and – with composer Marc Blitzstein at the keyboard and the actors sitting among the audience – performed the entire show while still circumventing rules that forbid the cast to perform upon the stage.

It was a bold beginning, and it’s the fervor of that production’s creators, and of their times, that comes across most vividly in Mad Cow Theatre’s revival of Blitzstein’s seminal show.

But the play itself doesn’t translate nearly so well. Despite a seamless staging by director Alan Bruun, which in its simplicity brings to mind the first performance 73 years ago, The Cradle Will Rock strikes modern eyes and ears as simplistic and strident, told entirely in black and white. You can understand the circumstances – the politically charged atmosphere, the marches, the strikes – that led to Blitzstein’s work. Yet American sensibilities are different now, and even similarly hard times in 2010 are not likely to lead you to embrace a show that seems resolutely old-hat.

Blitzstein and others called this kind of theater agitprop – for agitation and propaganda, from the Russian and referring to theater that was used to promote leftist politics and ideals. In The Cradle Will Rock, those politics stand front and center, from the characters’ names (Reverend Salvation, Larry Foreman, Editor Daily) to the persistent way Blitzstein shows so many of them giving in to corporate pressure and greed.

The personification of that greed is Mr. Mister, who, along with his wife Mrs. Mister, bribes or strong-arms nearly everybody around to put aside principles and make Steeltown, USA, even more profitable for the plutocrat who runs it.

Blitzstein used complicated jazz rhythms, popular music and the slang of the time to tell his story. The result is both homey (the chief union agitator calls his persecutors “ninnies”) and strangely inaccessible, with discordant melodies that must be difficult to sing and do not land easily on the ear.

Still, Bruun and his collaborators – music director (and pianist) Robin Jensen, lighting designer Erin Miner and costume designer Jim Warren – take to Blitzstein’s work with gusto. Bruun has added a short preamble telling the details of the historic first production, and he lines up his 14 actors in simple bentwood chairs on the stage. Miner’s footlights add to the harsh, dramatic plainness of the picture, and the actors who play multiple roles simply add a scarf or a trenchcoat as they sit waiting for their scene to come.

Most of those actors are terrific: Despite an occasional flat phrase or a botched line, they all get at the exaggerated characters and the unembellished traits they represent. Some of them can be very funny: Janine Papin as the extravagant, manipulative Mrs. Mister; Stephan Jones and David Almeida as Dauber and Yasha, a pair of rival artists who are peeved with each other because Mrs. Mister favors both of them.

Some are sweet: Ame Livingston as Moll, a desperate young woman of the streets; Melissa Mason and Todd Allen Long as Sadie and Gus, a pair of innocent, clear-voiced lovers. And some are compelling, especially Alan Sincic as the broken-hearted Harry Druggist; Jenny Weaver Barbieri as the forthright Ella Hammer; Joe Reed as Mr. Mister and Jones, again, as Foreman, the workingman who threatens to bring him down.

Yet the show feels relentless (and, at 100 intermissionless minutes, too long). Blitzstein shows you the same corruption, the same cynicism, over and over again, with no change in tone and, while the Brechtian style of the show works beautifully, the absolutes of Blitzstein’s vision do not. Maybe Americans have grown more cynical than they were in 1937; certainly they have become more sophisticated, more inclined to see the world in shades of gray. It’s interesting that Tim Robbins’s 1999 film Cradle Will Rock centers on the circumstances of the show’s first production but shows much less of the production itself. The politics haven’t changed much since 1937. But perception has.

‘The Cradle Will Rock’
What: Mad Cow Theatre production of Marc Blitzstein play in music.
Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through July 4 (also, 7:30 p.m. June 14 and 28).
Cost: $28 general, $26 seniors and students, $15 Mondays.
Call: 407-297-8788 Ext. 1.
Online: madcowtheatre.com.

(Photos: Top left: Stephan Jones as Larry Foreman and Joe Reed as Mr. Mister. Middle left: Janine Pain as Mrs. Mister and Eric Nicholas Bridges as Reverend Salvation. Middle right: Brett Carson as Editor Daily, Alex Mrazek as Junior Mister and Joe Reed as Mr. Mister. Bottom left: Todd Allan Long as Gus Polack and Melissa Mason as Sadie Polack,  with Alan Sincic as Harry Druggist in the background. Photos by Tom Hurst/Mad Cow Theatre.)

2 responses to “Theater review: ‘The Cradle Will Rock’

  1. Terry Olson

    I was glad the director added the introduction with each actor giving us some of the interesting history. That was the highlight of the evening for me. But I’m glad I’ve now seen this historical piece so I know what it was about.

  2. Maria Bonde

    I hate to tell you how truly awful this production was. Torture to sit through. Absurdly overacted.