Stages

New York Review: The Cradle Will Rock, a Depression-Era Operetta That Creaks With Age

The Cradle Will Rock is a Depression-era operetta about union organizing, class tensions and anti-capitalist fervor in 1930s Steeltown. Classic Stage Company and director John Doyle have created a lively rendition of the 80-year-old political antique. I would call it Brechtian, but it pales in comparison with Brecht plays like The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Mother Courage or even Round Heads and Pointed Heads.

Eddie Cooper and Kara Mikula as Junior Mister and Sister Mister. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In 1937, Marc Blitzstein’s play in music, supported by the Federal Theatre Project under the Works Progress Administration, was shut down the night before opening by federal authorities who claimed budget cuts would prohibit its staging. In fact, of course, they were worried about the play’s pro-labor position. The cast, crew and director Orson Welles found a way around this and staged a piano concert starring Blitzstein with actors performing from various places around the theater. That famous version of the story is told in the 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock, written and directed by Tim Robbins. It’s a delightful, if bumpy, story and you may be able to find a blurry copy of it on youtube (unless someone took it down since I last looked at it).

The CSC production begins with workers wandering casually on stage, two by two, dressed in shabby work clothes (costumes by Ann Hould-Ward). The piano is center stage with a large playing space in front of it and the audience around three sides. The Cradle Will Rock is performed in 10 scenes with piano accompaniment throughout by four of the actors in turn. Blitzstein’s characters have hammy posterboard names and his lyrics creak with age and exuberant rhyme schemes but never fail to make their viewpoint clear. A few of the performers are excellent singers and the score is melodic and lively—better than the often-cheesy lyrics. (Greg Jarrett is music supervisor.) As much fun as the left-wing romp is, The Cradle Will Rock shows its age beyond salvation.

The chief villain is Mr. Mister, a tycoon who “owns everything.” He’s played with almost-convincing villainy by David Garrison. Mr. Mister “owns” Steeltown, which includes the newspaper, the college, the church and the anti-union Liberty Committee. He and Editor Daily (Ken Barnett) sing an homage to freedom of the press (and then Mr. Mister tells Editor Daily which stories he wants the newspaper to run).

“Oh the press, the press, the freedom of the press
They’ll never take away the freedom of the press!
We must be free to say whatever’s on our chest
For whichever side will pay the best!”

His wife, Mrs. Mister (a lively Sally Ann Triplett) is a patron of the arts and the faith community. She meets with Reverend Salvation (Benjamin Eakeley) to give him her monthly gift, discuss steel prices and ask him to pray to “keep us out of war.” And he responds, “as your shepherd, I implore / turn from thoughts of wicked war / war we do abhor.”

At the Misters’ home, Junior Mister (Eddie Cooper) and Sister Mister (Kara Mikula) celebrate being rich in a frisky song and dance number. They’re among the strongest members of the cast. And Lara Pulver as Sadie (and the Moll) delivers a lovely version of a blues song, ”Nickel Under the Foot.”

The story concludes with the hero and union organizer, Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbeck) defying Mr. Mister and the Liberty Committee and reprising the anthem, “The Cradle Will Rock.” “There’s a storm that’s going to last until / The final wind blows … and when the wind blows … / The cradle will rock.”

The Cradle Will Rock continues through May 18 at Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., a few blocks from Union Square. Tickets and info here. Specializing in classic theater, CSC makes its home in an old building in the East Village, fronted by a lobby/expresso café.

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