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The Cradle Will Rock

Theatre Review by David Hurst - April 3, 2019

Lara Pulver, Kara Mikula, Benjamin Eakeley, Tony Yazbeck, and Ian Lowe
Photo by Joan Marcus

Considering the current, Trumpian state of our country's political discourse, with the 1% growing ever richer while the blue-collar middle-class scramble to keep their heads above water, it would seem an ideal time for a lacerating revival of Marc Blitzstein's Depression-era indictment of capitalism, The Cradle Will Rock. And who better to mount such a production than a stellar cast at Classic Stage Company, helmed by its minimalist Artistic Director, John Doyle. Imagine my surprise then to encounter a lifeless production which, despite an abundance of talent at his disposal, never explodes with rage under Doyle's flaccid direction.

First staged in 1937 in a pique of fury and "we'll show them" spirit by Orson Welles and John Houseman as part of the Federal Theater Project, The Cradle Will Rock, made theatrical history when authorities locked them out of their theatre just before opening night, but the show went on in another theatre with the cast performing from the audience and Blitzstein playing a single piano from the stage. (Perhaps you've seen the 1999 film directed by Tim Robbins which dramatizes the show's legendary first performance?) Of course, no production could live up to the original's history, but the book still has bite and its jazz-inflected score is frequently surprising, despite its indebtedness to Kurt Weill.

It's a cold night for the movers and shakers of Steeltown, the imaginary city where The Cradle Will Rock is set. They've been arrested at the behest of Mr. Mister, an appropriately oily David Garrison, Steeltown's richest citizen who owns everything and everyone. The show is then composed of a series of flashbacks in which we see how each denizen has been corrupted by Mr. Mister's millions. The cast is terrific, including: a haunting Lara Pulver as the prostitute Moll, the wonderful Sally Ann Triplett as Mrs. Mister, Ken Barnett as Editor Daily, Benjamin Eakeley as Reverend Salvation, a riveting Rema Webb as Dauber and Ella Hammer, Eddie Cooper as Junior Mister, Kara Mikula as Sister Mister, Ian Lowe as Professor Scoot, and, especially, Tony Yazbeck as both Harry Druggist and Larry Foreman, the lone laborer who risks the wrath of Mr. Mister by struggling to unionize his fellow steel workers. Most of them have standout moments, especially Yazbeck who tries mightily to bring Doyle's production to life with the rousing title song. But not even the mighty, triple-threat Yazbeck can save this revival.

For whatever reason, there's no energy or vitality propelling the storytelling of Doyle's production and, as a result, the audience's interest and attention-span flags. The pieces just don't fit. Four of the performers, Ken Barnett, Benjamin Eakeley, Ian Lowe and Kara Mikula, take turns as the show's accompanist at the single piano located upstage, center, on the bare stage. But it's a problem when watching the piano player is more interesting than watching the show being performed. Of the three orchestrations available for The Cradle Will Rock, it's a shame Doyle didn't use the most recent reduced one (for 14 players) which Josh Clayton wrote for the far superior 2013 production which inaugurated City Center ENCORES! Off-Center series, starring Raul Esparza and Danny Burstein, among others. Perhaps more musicians would have given the score more urgency. All I know is, whether you call it an allegorical play in music or proletariat agitprop, The Cradle Will Rock deserves better than its current mounting at Classic Stage.

The Cradle Will Rock
Through May 19
Lynn F. Angelson Theater at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
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