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The Cradle Will Rock

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Cradle Will Rock
Raúl Esparza and Peter Friedman
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Is The Cradle Will Rock better history than it is a musical? Offered the rare opportunity to see this 1937 Marc Blitzstein show performed live — and the even rarer opportunity to hear with actual orchestrations — as part of this summer's inaugural City Center Encores! Off-Center series, one can't help but wonder.

Mind you, that's not because the work isn't accomplished. But before its premiere, its unapologetic leftist agitprop underpinnings had already been thoroughly explored by writers such as Bertolt Brecht and Clifford Odets. So if its anti-predatory-capitalism, pro-union message wasn't sufficiently new to stand out on its own, that hardly mattered once its unique opening night propelled it into posterity.

Chances are you know about original director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman parading the cast through the streets, after the government-run Federal Theatre Project put the brakes on the first performance, and eventually shepherding their show into an entirely different theater altogether, where the actors (with Blitzstein at piano) performed from the seats because Actors' Equity and the musicians' representation forbade them to appear onstage. So further details won't be dwelled upon here. (If you're not firm on all the particulars, Tim Robbins's 1999 movie Cradle Will Rock recounts the tale.)

But when you face the show without all those additional external excesses, its edges no longer seem as sharp as once they may have. Brecht's own landmark title written with Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera, shocks and thrills (and, on occasion, annoys) yet today because its depiction of bottom-to-top corruption is in many ways more inherently universal and enduring. In 2013, though both left and right may bicker about unions, the most significant headline-grabbing battleground is "right to work" legislation, and that's a bit beyond Blitzstein's scope.

He spins a story that's considerably simpler, and more allegorical: about Larry Foreman (Raúl Esparza), who's struggling to unionize the laborers of Steeltown for protection against the ultra-rich, ultra-nasty Mister Mister (Danny Burstein) and the countless public officials he has in his pocket. Though he's spoken of throughout, Foreman doesn't appear until quite late, ceding much of the running time to introducing us to the stable of people-shaped obstacles against whom he will tilt, including the other members of the antagonist's family (Mrs., Junior, and Sister Mister), the newspaper editor, the buyable doctor, and so on.

The Cradle Will Rock
Judy Kuhn
Photo by Joan Marcus.

You might expect that director Sam Gold would be an ideal choice for attacking this challenge, as he's proven an uncanny (and largely unmatched) ability for removing layers of excess in plays such as The Flick and Circle Mirror Transformation. You'd be both right and wrong. Gold does that attempt that, but in stripping too much away he piles on extra weight the show has trouble supporting.

For example, he compensates for the almost complete lack of scenic elements (Andrew Lieberman is the billed designer) by making this a truly old-school Encores! concert, with a minimum of staging and a fair number of other Brechtian "alienation" tricks to further distance you emotionally from what you're watching. Actors carry cards spelling out the scene, and even read them aloud; several adult parts are played by a child actor (Aidan Gemme); and cross-dressing occurs in several circumstances, from Editor Daily (Judy Kuhn) to the crooked Doctor Specialist (Eisa Davis) to Sister Mister herself (Martin Moran). Most everyone plays at least two or three roles. And the finale goes full-tilt with the concept, breaking apart the very elements of the physical theater as if to prove that nothing — not even the cyc and microphone stands — are sacred.

Though arresting imagery in theory, its heavy-handed use here ultimately detracts from absorbing what's on offer. Blitzstein wasn't Brecht, and treating the two as identical artists disrespects both their differences and their shows: The Cradle Will Rock was intended as elaborate, with real sets and a relatively huge orchestra, and despite its arch tone makes a somewhat more potent play for the audience's emotions. (This is clearest in the rabble-rousing title song and in "Joe Worker," a wife's lament for a husband who was stepped on by society and then made a scapegoat for penny-pinchers' problems.)

By trying to bring you "closer," then, Gold pushes you further away. (His decision to have the entire cast clad in costume designer Clint Ramos's glamorous evening wear also doesn't do much to support a message about class struggles.) The cast members are uniformly excellent, with Kuhn, Burstein, Peter Friedman (as the put-upon Harry Druggist), and Anika Noni Rose (as Mrs. Mister) particular standouts; and Esparza singing with thrilling gusto, if not quite the force of personality Foreman requires. But when Moran cavorts in an electric-pink dress, Henry Stram dons a floppy blond wig as Junior Mister, and Kuhn unleashes her fierce soprano on Daily, you're not experiencing the show in anything like the way Blitzstein intended it.

When his songs and scenes are allowed to flourish unadorned (though the orchestrations Chris Fenwick conducts are new ones by Josh Clayton, not Blitzstein's), they have no trouble holding their own. Davis's "Nickel Under the Foot" and "Joe Worker" (sung with deep-seated fervor by Da'vine Joy Randolph) still ring out with anguish as the oppressed assess their lot, and even more pointed and satirical numbers (including "Honolulu," in which Daily railroads Junior as a Hawaiian correspondent) have their appropriate smirking, chilling impact, though it stops somewhere short of incendiary.

But if it resonates now as more a reminder of what used to be than as a direct, fiery call to action, it's a solid enough piece of writing to convince you of its latent power if not its timelessness. Gold, however, just worked too hard to bring it out. The Cradle Will Rock, unlike the people it documents, simply doesn't need that much help to become all it can be today.


City Center Encores! Off-Center
The Cradle Will Rock
Through July 13
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: nycitycenter.org