Review of The Cradle Will Rock at Classic Stage Company

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    April 4, 2019
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    The Cradle Will Rock is the most famous musical you’ve never heard of. Written in 1937 by Marc Blitzstein, it was chosen to be presented as one of FDR’s WPA projects directed by a 20-year-old Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman. Slated to open on June 16, 1937, the pro-union satire about capitalism and corruption, was shut down days before opening night by the Federal Theatre Project when a conservative congress threatened to pull funding over its left-wing political tone, fearing a riot.

    But in a story that could have been ripped from today’s headlines, on opening night, 600 audience members and the actors followed a borrowed piano on a truck a few blocks away to another theater that had been secured. There, Blitzstein got up on stage by himself with the piano and started to play and sing. The actors were seated with the audience having been banned by their union from going on stage. When their cues came, they stood and performed from their seats. The Cradle Will Rock continued to run through December of that year and became the first show ever to have an original cast recording.

    So, it makes perfect sense that, with the swamp returned to Washington, DC where another conservative congress is making headlines with corruption scandals, The Cradle Will Rock is being revived at Classic Stage Company. The Cradle Will Rock has only had one other Broadway revival – in 1947, and two Off-Broadway revivals since it opened. And since it’s fateful opening night, the fashion with Cradle has been the kind of minimal staging that director John Doyle has become known for with his success with musicals such as Sweeney Todd and Company. And of course, Blitzstein’s modern style of music that could almost be described as harsh, at times defying easy melody, fits this kind of stripped-down presentation. He was a big admirer of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill and was responsible for the English-language translation of their Threepenny Opera. Evidence of their influence is apparent in this production of The Cradle Will Rock.

    Doyle has assembled a small but talented cast who all manage to nimbly navigate their multiple roles. The spare set using metal barrels moved around in different configurations in tandem with the Brechtian announcements of scene are enough to establish place. The costumes turn out to be the only problem here. With almost everyone dressed in some form of overalls or factory worker garb, the early scene in the jail before you understand that everyone will have multiple roles is very confusing. Why is everyone in The Liberty Committee saying that the character Moll (Lara Pulver) is beneath them?

    Perhaps what would have been more revolutionary would have been to do the full production with complete orchestrations, sets, costumes and cast that was originally rehearsed and intended that was prevented from being shown on opening night. That has never been seen in New York City. Still, I wouldn’t have missed this chance to see a full production of The Cradle Will Rock. I’ve only seen or heard concert versions before and I grew up hearing stories about opening night.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Audiences at its fabled premiere in 1937 would have understood it without footnotes as a leftist rallying cry and a satire of unfettered capitalism’s enablers. Writing in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called it “a triumph of politically insurgent theater.” But what is it now? John Doyle’s revival, which opened on Wednesday at Classic Stage Company, is too wan to answer the question. Though his stripped-down approach often enhances richly conceived works — his production of Carmen Jones last year was gorgeous — it makes others, severe to begin with, seem cold and underfed."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "Doyle always seems to capture one truly memorable performance. In Arturo Ui, it was Raul Esparza; in Carmen Jones, Anika Noni Rose. Cradle doesn’t provide such a star turn, but Lara Pulver mesmerizes in the supporting roles of the Moll and Sadie. Her scenes with Yazbeck and Benjamin Eakeley (the Reverend) emit a palpable heat."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap