Life most definitely imitated art with the first production of The Cradle Will Rock, a show about unions and greed. The original production in 1937 was prevented from opening, given governmental and theatrical unions at the timewhich put prohibitive restrictions on it. It opened instead at a different theater twenty blocks north, in Manhattan, where the show’s composer and lyricist Mark Blitzstein played a lone piano on the stage, and where the performers sang out their parts from seats in the audience: Given the union rules, performing from the auditorium could be viewed as audience participation, as opposed to a presentation.
Blitzstein clearly had a famous nursery rhyme in mind when he devised his title: Consider, “…When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall…” He was also, clearly, inspired by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Three Penny Opera. Even more of an inspiration, perhaps, may have been The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, another Brecht and Weill collaboration, which, like Cradle Will Rock, is also about a fictional city run by corrupt leaders and involving prostitution, amidst other craven behavior.
Then too, The Cradle Will Rock was a natural choice for director John Doyle after his recent version of the similarly themed The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, also by Brecht and also for the Classic Stage Company–not to mention Doyle’s penchant for meager, minimalist productions.
Doyle’s simple scenic design for Cradle consists of large colorful steel drums or barrels, a lone piano and a telephone pole with strings representing phone wires overhead, covering the elongated rectangular space of the CSC. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes have the residents of “Steeltown, U.S.A.,” where Cradle is set, appear as hobos, with certain railroad caps and overalls evoking the common way of bums hitching rides on trains during the Great Depression.
Though it’s hard to say what, if anything, has been cut, Doyle’s spare approach was also to turn a two-act show into one, which plays for 100 intermission-less minutes. He also has his ten actors doubling and tripling up in roles, which adds to a general confusion. Without voice or costume changes, it’s difficult to know when Ken Barnett is Editor Daily or when he’s President Prexy, just as it’s hard to comprehend when Eddie Cooper is A Dick, or Junior Mister, or Dr. Specialist. Only the recognizable David Garrison has a single identity as Mr. Mister, the man who more or less runs everyone and everything in Steeltown. Even the vastly talented Tony Yazbeck, who is primarily the union organizer Larry Foreman, also appears at times as Harry Druggist.
If Blitzstein’s tactic was to identify his characters by their names–à la Dickens–Doyle’s method mixes them all up. And after listing 21 different characters in the cast listing, a not so helpful note in the digital program adds, “All other roles are played by members of the company,” which also includes Benjamin Eakeley, Ian Lowe, Lara Pulver, and Rema Webb.
Despite alienating us in so many ways, Doyle attempts to involve us in the action by having Yazbeck run up one of the aisles, becoming part of the audience, as it were, while he observes the action below. He also has one of his actors, Sally Ann Triplett, sit in the laps of unsuspecting audience members, or if there’s an available seat next to somebody, she sits in it. (Triplett is most effective as Mrs. Mister–even though she also plays Professor Mamie.)
There’s a lovely rendition of perhaps the show’s most melodious number, “Nickel Under the Foot.” And there is also an attempt to lighten the generally bleak mood of the piece by having Sister Mister (Kara Mikula) and Junior Mister do a vaudevillian soft-shoe and croon on one of their tunes.
Many of Blitzstein’s melodic tunes are plunked out on the piano by several of the players at various points. But the fault is not only due to Doyle’s direction: what’s missing from Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock is the heart and/or soul that every musical requires. It’s a wannabe musical or opera that, ironically, lacks substance, given its heavy-hitting intentions.
The Cradle Will Rock (through May 18, 2019)
Classic Stage Company
Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 East 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.classicsstage.org
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission