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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE CRADLE WILL ROCK
at Classic Stage Company

STATE OF THE UNION
By MATT WINDMAN

  Lara Pulver, Kara Mikula, Benjamin Eakeley, Tony Yazbeck and Ian Lowe/ Ph: Joan Marcus

More than 80 years since it first premiered as a product of the Works Progress Administration’s short-lived Federal Theatre Project (1935-1939), The Cradle Will Rock, Mark Blitzstein’s 1937 allegorical, satirical, proudly pro-union musical, is best remembered for its compelling behind-the-scenes/backstage saga (as dramatized in Tim Robbins’ underrated 1999 film Cradle Will Rock). But that is starting to change, with renewed interest in the musical itself in the wake of 2008 financial crisis, Occupy Wall Street, overwhelming income inequality and recent Supreme Court decisions that threaten the future viability of unions.

In 2010, The Cradle Will Rock received a modest Off-Off-Broadway production directed by David Fuller at Theater Ten Ten. (As it happens, Fuller’s new company, Theater 2020 in Brooklyn Heights, is set to present The Cradle Will Rock in June.) In 2013, City Center inaugurated its summertime Encores! Off-Center series with a production of the musical featuring a new 14-piece orchestration (rather than a single piano, which has become standard) and an impressive ensemble including Raul Esparza, Anika Noni Rose and unusually sinister Danny Burstein as Mr. Mister. (Shortly afterwards, I heard that Burstein modeled his performance on a now disgraced former movie mogul.) But perhaps most important of all, last year, Opera Saratoga in Upstate New York released a two-disc cast album using Blitzstein’s original orchestrations. (Fun fact: The first-ever cast album was of The Cradle Will Rock, and scratchy snippets can be found on YouTube.)

It should come as no surprise that John Doyle (famous for his scaled-down productions of musicals, ranging from works of Sondheim to The Color Purple and Carmen Jones) should take an interest in The Cradle Will Rock and that his production (produced Off-Broadway by Classic Stage, where he is now artistic director) leans on the leaner side, with a 10-person ensemble cast (most of whom play multiple roles), a single piano (played by alternating cast members) and a 90-minute running time without intermission. The cast includes Tony Yazbeck (On the Town, Prince of Broadway), Lara Pulver (Gypsy in the West End) and David Garrison (A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine).

Doyle (who usually designs his own productions, including here) takes a self-aware show-within-a-show approach. But rather than recreate the legendary 1937 premiere performance with Blitzstein at the piano (as some revivals have attempted), Doyle suggests that we are watching a group of blue-collar industrial workers putting on their own no-frills production of the show. Perhaps it is meant to take place a few years after 1937, with a group that is relying on the show’s pro-union messaging to build support for a soon-to-be union. They sit on steel drums and perform under an overhead mass of telephone wires. Perhaps the cast should have also handed out to the audience the leaflets that Harry Foreman (Yazbeck) would hand out to fellow citizens.

The production is half-successful, in that the songs and dialogue of earnest, pro-labor drama (in which The Moll, the reluctant prostitute, meets other struggling characters in jail and then witnesses the climactic showdown between union organizer Larry Foreman and business tycoon Mr. Mister) succeed and the satirical interludes (demonstrating how the leaders of the institutions of Steeltown all bow down to the instructions of Mr. Mister and his wife in exchange for their continued financial support) come off as repetitive, labored, and lacking in humor and entertainment value. A smart visual motif in this production comes in the form of dollars thrown to the stage floor by Mr. Mister, which the other actors proceed to desperately snatch up. When Mr. Mister makes his proposed offer/bride to Larry Foreman, he throws down an entire barrel of dollars. Doyle ought to have considered removing the actors from the stage when they are not part of a scene. Having them otherwise sit around on the steel drums is distracting and looks sloppy. That being said, this choice can be defended to the extent that the actors (while sitting) represent those who have been thrown into the local jail and are awaiting the arrival of Mr. Mister and Larry Foreman.  

Yazbeck (who excels at delivering a sweeping sense of big-hearted yearning in virtually every show he does, most especially during “Lonely Town” back in On the Town) transitions nicely from portraying the sad and disgraced Harry Druggist (whose attempt to appease Mr. Mister in spite of moral misgivings led to the death of his son and the loss of his shop) to the upbeat and unstoppable Larry Foreman. Garrison is low-key but smooth, exacting and effective as Mr. Mister. Pulver, beaten-down and unsure as The Moll, does fine work with both of her character’s poignant solos, “I’m Checkin’ Home Now” and “Nickel Under the Foot”.

Classic Stage recently announced that its next season will include Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, Macbeth (set in Scotland), and repertory productions of Frankenstein and Dracula. This all sounds exciting. But looking ahead, Classic Stage should seriously reconsider its decision from this season to no longer distribute hard copies of programs. Needless to say, the bio information gleaned from any program can easily be obtained online. But like it or not, perusing a program or playbill before a show begins or during intermission has become an ingrained part of the New York theatergoing experience. Even if some money is saved by not printing the programs, it could end up threatening audience goodwill.

 


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