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Theatre in Review: The Cradle Will Rock (Classic Stage Company)

Lara Pulver. Photo: Joan Marcus

CSC's greatest hits of anti-fascism series continues with this revival of Marc Blitzstein's storied labor opera. Like the company's production, earlier this season, of Bertolt Brecht's 1941 parable, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Cradle Will Rock, written for the Federal Theatre Project in 1937, is steeped in the tumult of the between-the-wars years; it offers a bald, if not to say condescending, lesson in municipal corruption and the virtues of labor unions. Decades on, such ideas remain burningly relevant, but, seeing John Doyle's revival, you may have trouble understanding why the piece was considered too hot to handle, so much so that the opening night only took place following a concerted effort to suppress it.

The Cradle Will Rock is anything but subtle; like the plays of Clifford Odets, it is designed to instruct audiences in the finer points of class warfare. It is set in Steeltown, USA, where the workers -- and the church, the media, and academe -- all squirm under the thumb of the industrialist Mr. Mister. The action is centered around a labor meeting infiltrated by members of the Liberty Committee, a fascist organization packed with Mr. Mister's cronies, all of whom get arrested by mistake while posing as workers. As they wait to get sprung, the libretto flashes back, showing how Mr. Mister and his wife -- yes, her name is Mrs. Mister -- employ a combination of bribery and intimidation to maintain a tight lid on Steeltown. Lurking around the edges of the action is Larry Foreman, the voice of the working man, who brings the news that the oppressive old order must give way for a workers' paradise.

Seen in 1983, in a revival by The Acting Company, The Cradle Will Rock was frequently electrifying, not least because of the joyful Larry Foreman of Randle Mell, a grinning Joshua ready to knock down the walls of Jericho. (Alas, I missed Patti LuPone, who appeared in the cast for a short time.) At a time when Ronald Reagan was doing his best to break the labor unions, the show blazed with an urgency that overrode its finger-waving didacticism. In 2019, it comes across as a radio wave from the far past, only now bouncing back to us from some distant universe. Blitzstein, who, at this point in his career, was in thrall to Brecht and Kurt Weill, clearly aimed to creating an American Threepenny Opera, but he lacked Brecht's savage irony, settling for an often-glum tutorial tone. What keeps it interesting is the score, some of which sounds like a Weill tribute album, though there are plenty of distinctive contributions: "Mrs. Mister and Reverend Salvation," a hot-cha toe-tapper in which piles of cash are used to influence the preaching of the church; the jagged, weirdly ascending melodic line of "Croon Spoon"; the lazily insinuating "Honolulu"; the prostitute's lament, "Nickel Under the Foot"; and the title tune, an unpredictable and stirring anthem.

One of the great strengths of the 1983 revival was that it began with a reading of an account by the director, John Houseman, of The Cradle Will Rock's electrifying opening night: Facing a shutdown by the Federal Theatre Project and crippling demands from -- irony of ironies -- the musicians' union, a new theatre was found on the afternoon of opening night. The audience was marched down the street to the new venue, where Blitzstein played the score on a piano and actors, in street clothes, popped up from the audience. This device gave the musical a samizdat quality that added greatly to its excitement.

Clearly, this revival means to draw parallels to today's fraught politics, but the resemblances are often blurry. The number "The Freedom of the Press," in which Mr. Mister trades cash for toothless coverage from Editor Daily -- one of the most blatant Weill derivatives -- seems oddly off-topic at a time when the media has heroically embraced the role of the loyal opposition. And Blitzstein's almost blind faith in the power of the people bemuses at a time when those same people are as likely as not to don MAGA caps, denounce immigrants, and chant "Lock her up!" These days, populism has a lot to answer for.

And in Doyle's fretful, low-energy production, a show that should have the hammerlike impact of a propaganda poster often seems to be looking for a style. The eleven-member cast is at a disadvantage, as actors are forced to double in roles for which they aren't really suited, and overall, there is a general confusion about how to attack material that is deliberately rabble-rousing. Especially given Blitzstein's frequent satires of pop music styles, a certain stylization is missing: This is social criticism of an entirely dutiful sort, sorely lacking a wicked twinkle in its eye. Among the standouts are Sally Ann Triplett, a venal, breathless Margaret Dumont type as Mrs. Mister; Lara Pulver, equally tough and touching as the streetwalking Moll and as Sadie, girlfriend of Gus, a murdered steelworker;; and Rema Webb, as Gus' sister, casting a malediction on the powers that be in "Joe Worker." As Larry Foreman, Tony Yazbeck delivers some stirring vocals, but his anxious interpretation takes much of the triumph out of the title tune; he is also less effective as Harry Druggist, witness to a hushed-up killing that also results in the death of his son.

Once again, Doyle acts as his own set designer, using an array of oil drums and a nest of telephone wires overhead as his main scenic elements. This puts extra responsibility on the lighting designers, Jane Cox and Tess James, who fluently reshape the stage, creating a variety of moods. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, which dress everyone in plain denim overalls, workers' caps, and bandannas, no matter who they are playing, are less than helpful. There is no sound design, which, in a theatre as intimate as this, is fine, but then the cast should be encouraged to belt more vigorously.

Based on the audience's reaction at the performance I attended, there are plenty of people willing to take a nostalgic time trip to those days of bread lines and strongmen, when socialism was a hot national topic. As you know, socialism is back in the national conversation, but the world has changed beyond recognition in eight decades and Blitzstein's vision of industrial workers in revolt has little to do with our current situation. In any case, Orson Welles delivered a galvanic original production, and Houseman's Reagan-era staging delivered plenty of thrills. In contrast, Doyle's company often seems just to be going through the revolutionary motions. -- David Barbour

(4 April 2019)

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