Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Blitzstein's musical has been compared to the work of his contemporaries Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil. Indeed, Blitzstein's greatest success was his translation of Brecht and Weil's The Threepenny Opera for an acclaimed production that opened at New York's Theatre de Lys in 1954 and stuck around till 1961 (that show had tanked on its first go in New York in the 1930s).
The Cradle Will Rock is less arch, its characters not as outlandish as in Brecht and Weil's universe, stretching their arms a bit toward the standard issue Broadway musical, but those arms never do reach that far, nor would we want them to. If there is any resemblance to shows now on Broadway, it is to the hyper-jazzed up cynicism of Kander and Ebb's Chicago, a climate that also encircled their last two produced works, The Scottsboro Boys and The Visit.
But The Cradle Will Rock is its own animal, a pageant of hard times made harder by the oppression of those with all the money, which equals all the powerthose we today call the 1%. In Steeltown, the unscrupulous Mr. Mister holds all the cards, while his wife Mrs. Mister stacks a deck of her own. He uses his clout, both legal and extra-legal, to keep all the civic establishments under his thumbthe newspaper (led by Editor Daily), the church (Reverend Salvation), the medical field (Dr. Specialist), the university (President Prexy), and even the arts (Dauber the painter and Yasha, a concert musician). Each has a scene with one or more songs depicting how any ethics they once held crumble before Mr. and Mrs. Mister's sway, and each has been asked to serve on Mr. Mister's ironically named Liberty Committeea status which keeps them securely in the tyrant's grasp.
These vignettes are seen through the eyes of Moll, a prostitute who says "No" to the wrong guy, and Harry Druggist, a pharmacist whose downfall is the saddest tale of all. There are cops all about, a tubby crew who waddle when they walk, like a tin wind-up toy, but who swing hefty clubs. Last but not least is our hero, Larry Foreman, organizing the workers at Mr. Mister's factory, and reaching out to brothers and sisters across the spectrum of labor to unite and to put their collective feet down or else, he exclaims "the cradle will rock!". Thanks to Larry Foreman's courage and optimism, all the tawdry business we have seen before is washed over by a wave of hope.
Here's where the story of a society subject to the whims of the wealthy few in the 1930s veers from today. At that time, union organizing was on the rise, culminating in powerful labor unions during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, when "Look for the Union Label" became a favorite TV commercial jingle. Since then, in the wake of Ronald Reagan's union-busting policies and overseas outsourcing of what were once American jobs with union protections, union power is on the wane. Now we are not told to look for a union label, but a label that says "Made in the U.S.A," erasing a connection to the well-being of those whose sweat actually produced the hammer, jeans, or bowling ball.
If it can thus be thought there is a hint of nostalgia about The Cradle Will Rock, it also provides a mirror that reflects upon our current state, presented in garish spectacle with bold makeup on the actors' facesscarlet cheeks, dark-shadowed eyesand wildly comic costuming by Kathy Kohl. Tony Stoeri's stark lighting sets the tone with opening scenes that cast the bright white light of a tabloid crime scene upon groups of characters striking poses. The play is near completely sung-through, with Blitzstein's score packed full of themes for these characters, drawing upon jazz, ragtime, hill country folk, and tin pan alley motifs. The music is constant, played with exquisite precision by Sonja Thompson on a jangly piano, with cast members now and then providing accompaniment on assorted instruments. The score does not offer tunes one is likely to leave whistling, but it could not be more perfect for telling the story Blitzstein has laid out.
The ensemble is magnificent. Kate Beahen, as Moll and JP Fitzgibbons as Harry Druggist are the shared heart of the piece, appalled by compromise and corruption all around them. Beahen is heartbreaking singing about the euphoria of "A Nickel Under Your Foot," Fitzgibbons digs from deep within in describing the calamity that took away everything Harry cherished in life. The heroic Larry Foreman is played by Carl Schoenborn with full-hearted conviction. Looking back at the arc the efforts that he and his ilk took to improve the lot of our people, and where things now seem to be heading, lends a poignancy to his performance that might not have been present when Cradle bowed in 1937.
The villains of Steeltown, Mr. and Mrs. Mister, are played with heinous gusto by JC Cutler and Molly Sue McDonald, maintaining the decorum of those powerful enough to employ others do their rough business for them. McDonald repeats the role she played in Frank Theatre's 2003 production of The Cradle Will Rock. I missed it that time around, but it's impossible to imagine how she could have been any better then than now.
Maria Asp draws all eyes, ears and hearts to her as Ella Hammer, singing "Joe Worker" for her brother who died from being overworked and not, as Mr. Mister wants Dr. Specialist to attest, from his own drunken misconduct. Sasha Andreev is shockingly out of control as Mr. Mister's son Junior Mister, an imbecile born to privilege, when, along with Sister Mister (Chelsie Newhard), Mr. Mister, and Editor Daily (Bob Beverage), he considers the earthy pleasures of being sent to work in "Hawaii." Joe Nathan Thomas imbues Reverend Salvation with a hefty mantle of hypocrisy, tailoring his sermons to which way the winds (and dollar signs) blow, while Scotty Reynolds as Yasha, and Hector Chavarria as Dauber delightfully detail the profits to be had in "Arts for Art's Sake."
I would be remiss not to mention the legendary circumstances of The Cradle Will Rock's premiere in 1937. The show, produced by Orson Welles and John Houseman, was commissioned by the depression-era Federal Theatre Project, intended to employ actors and theater craft-persons. Shortly before opening night, the production was shut down due to federal budget cuts. Cast, crew, and an audience that had shown up for a preview performance marched from the locked-up theater to an available theater 21 blocks away and Blitzstein himself played his score from the stage on a rented piano, while cast members, forbidden to appear on stage, sang their parts from their seats in the audience. There was, after all, no law against audience participation. The producers regrouped and brought the show back for a thirteen-week run the following year.
If that bit of theater folklore doesn't motivate you to see The Cradle Will Rock, go back to everything written before it. This is a powerful show, being given a "drop everything and go" production by Frank Theater, with strong performances throughout by actors committed to their work and their audience. It speaks to our past and present, and raises tough questions about our future. All that, and it is great entertainment.
The Cradle Will Rock, through April 7, 2019, at Frank Theatre, Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $30.00, students and seniors: $25.00. For tickets and information, visit franktheatre.org or call 612-724-3760.
Book, music and lyrics: Marc Blitzstein; Director: Wendy Knox; Musical Director: Sonja Thompson; Set Design: Sara Herman; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Light Design: Tony Stoeri; Sound Design: Dan Dukich; Stage Manager: Jared Zeigler.
Cast: Sasha Andreev (Junior Mister/Dr. Specialist), Maria Asp (Ella Hammer/Cop/Bugs), Kate Beahen (Moll), Bob Beverage (Editor Daily), Hector Chavarria (Dauber), Gillian Constable (President Prexy), JC Cutler (Mr. Mister), J.P. Fitzgibbons (Harry Druggist), Thalia Kostman (Mamie/Sadie), Molly Sue McDonald (Mrs. Mister). Chelsie Newhard (Sister Mister/Scoot/Reporter), Cameron Reeves (Gus/Clerk), Scotty Reynolds (Yasha), Carl Schoenborn (Larry Foreman/Dick), Joe Nathan Thomas (Reverend Salvation), David Wasserman (Stevie/Reporter), Allison Witham (Trixie).