Regional Reviews: Boston
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston presents the New England Premiere of It's All True, a play by Canadian playwright Jason Sherman offering yet another take on the events leading up to the legendary opening night of Marc Blitzstein's musical The Cradle Will Rock.
While there's no denying the extraordinary nature of the performance that took place on June 16, 1937, only what happened in the streets and on the stage of the Venice theatre that night are a matter of public record. We do know that the elaborate scenery and staging devised by a very young Orson Welles was jettisoned (probably for the best) when the Federal Theatre Project suddenly withdrew their support and locked the doors of the theatre.
And there are many accounts of how the audience, along with most of the cast and crew, then marched twenty blocks up town to a rented theatre where the composer, alone on a bare stage, performed the entire show at an upright piano. The actors and musicians were barred by their unions from appearing on stage and in the pit. Led by Olive Stanton, who had the opening lines of the piece, many cast members joined in to sing from their places in the audience, sometimes accompanied by the accordion player when he could remember his music.
Little is known about Stanton. She pretty much disappeared from view after being immortalized on the 1938 recording of The Cradle Will Rock (one of the earliest original cast recordings, still available on CD). Just as Tim Robbins did in his 1999 film Cradle Will Rock, Sherman plays fast and loose with the facts, getting creative when necessary. And both make Stanton key to their story, Robbins depicting her as a homeless waif needing a job and Sherman saddling her with a husband, three children to support and an affair with her leading man.
Accounts of the contentious rehearsal period and details about what actually transpired with government officials differ widely, depending on whose memoir you read. Blitzstein's politics are clear from the work itself, a pro-union, anti-business agit-prop satire. We can only guess what motivated Welles and his producing partner John Houseman to select this piece as their next project for a unit of the FTP whose charter was to revive the classics.
The women in the cast (Julie Jirousek and Jennifer Valentine) aren't in such good hands with either Buckley or Sherman. Playing five supporting roles between the two of them, they jump in and out of unflattering costumes and silly accents without getting a handle on any of them. Jirousek is on target when Stanton finally delivers the performance the men are looking for, but the way they get it out of her is pretty nasty business.
One other disquieting note: an oddity about It's All True, and what sets it apart most acutely from the Robbins' film, is that it purports to show us something of Blitzstein's work without actually presenting any material from The Cradle Will Rock. In place of the real thing, composer Don Horsburgh provides original music that approximates a generic Kurt Weill / Blitzstein sound to go with Sherman's made up text. This serves, in a sad way, to diminish Blitzstein's place among American's valued theatre composers which I don't think the playwright intended.
It's All True runs through March 8th at the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St. (Copley Square), Boston, Mass (in the YWCA Building.) For tickets and information: (617) 437-7172 or online at lyricstage.com/
- Suzanne Bixby