The Cradle Will Rock

Ben Miles Reviews - Theater
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Among the most interesting things about Marc Blitzstein’ s 1937 musical, The Cradle Will Rock, is that as part of the Federal Theatre Project, and under the artistic direction of Orson Welles, the original production was forcibly shut-down—purportedly due to budget mandates. The Maxine Elliot Theatre, where the show was to debut in New York City, was padlocked and enveloped by U.S. troops providing security. That story is liberally chronicled in Tim Robbins’ 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock.

Another intriguing factoid about The Cradle is that Welles’ initial cast—including Howard De Silva (whose performance toupee was confiscated and impounded by government agents) and Will Geer (later Grandpa on TV’ s “ The Waltons” )—recorded the show on seven 78-rpm discs and then released them for distribution. It became the first cast album recording ever created of theater or cinema.

Southern California audiences now have the chance to experience The Cradle Will Rock (at Hollywood’ s Stella Adler Theatre, through March 20) live, up-close and—even if it’ s not exactly a personal encounter—at least it’ s a socio-economic examination of a bygone era, which seems especially pertinent today.

Having neither the character specificity of Clifford Odets nor the affective resonance of Arthur Miller, Blitzstein’ s musical drama does have the aesthetic distancing of Bertolt Brecht’ s so-called alienation effect. We are given archetypes instead of fleshed-out characterizations. Rather than being nourished by dialog, we are fed polemics.

Undoubtedly, under Daniel Hennings direction, we get Blitzstein’ s Cradle just the playwright/composer meant it to be: unsubtle agitprop put to a progressive political beat. It’ s the story of corruption, greed, and corporate exploitation (sound familiar?).We follow the travails of protagonist Larry Foreman, a union organizer (Rex Smith in strong voice and presence). The antagonist and arch-villain is business mogul Mr. Mister (an imposing Peter Van Norden). Mr. Mister has his line-up of bourgeois acolytes—including a venal clergyman (Christopher Carroll), a sell-out artist (Roland Rusinek), a fund-chasing college president (Matthew Patrick Davis), and a dubious medical doctor (Rob Roy Cesar).

With a litany of songs and one piano player (David O, musical director) pounding out melodies in the 90 minute, intermissionless show, none of Blitzstein’ s lyrics or music are hummable or memorable. What does stick with us, however, is the vigor and dedication of this 19 member ensemble. If energy were wealth, this Cradle would rock with riches. Regrettably, the staging wears thin before it ends.

On a minimalists set (scenic design by Kurt Boetcher did little more than add a piano to the black-box stage), with impressively vintage costumes (by Naila Aladdin Sanders) less drama than pageantry is delivered here. Still, with stalwart performers such as Gigi Bermingham as Mrs. Mister, Tiffany C. Adams as Moll, Jack Laufer as Harry Druggest, and Adam Wylie as Junior Mister the sheer vitality and pertinence of “ Cradle” warrants the attention of avid theatergoers. 

The Cradle Will Rock, a Blank Theatre production, continues at the Stella Adler Theatre—6773 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood—through March 20. Show times are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, dial (323) 661-9827. For online ticketing and further information, visit www.theblank.com.