The musical play by Marc Blitzstein has lived in memory as a legendary icon of the Great Depression era, but one might never see what all the fuss was about from this mostly lethargic production by the Classic Stage Company (CSC). It is admirable that John Doyle has reached into theater history and tried to recall the original Brecht-style work, but in directing and designing his pared down version (90 minutes without an intermission) he has not infused the musical drama with the energy needed to see why Blitztein’s achievement had power as well as guts.
Of course, a main reason why ‘The Cradle Will Rock” is part of theater lore is that the sponsoring Federal Theater Project banned it before its scheduled 1937 opening in a naked move of censorship for the work’s outspoken pro-labor stance and depiction of bribery and corruption. The unions of actors and musicians followed by forbidding its members to perform in the show and the sets were in effect imprisoned. Defiantly, resourceful director Orson Welles, abetted by producer John Houseman, found another location and, after ticket holders streamed to the new site at the last moment, the cast members did their roles rising from seats in the audience, with only accompaniment by Blitzstein at the piano instead of with the full orchestra he had envisioned, along with the planned scenery. The gambit made the show famous. I saw a staging done exactly that way that captured the original spirit of the revolt. There have been various other type offerings through the years.
Doyle opts for a lone piano too, but has arranged the performances in a central stage area that eschews the rising from the audience idea, but seeks to retrieve the musical’s original concept. The agit-prop is all there in the dramatization of an effort to form a union in Steeltown, and the vicious attempt to crush the movement in the midst of massive corruption, with a Mr. Mister practically owning the town and all the power points in it.
The characters have simplistic iconic names like Reverend Salvation and Editor Daily, and the show is enhanced by Blitzstein’s music and numbers giving various individuals a chance to shine. The trouble with Doyle’s staging, and in some instances casting, is that so much comes across as meandering and bland. The main strength erupts toward the end when Tony Yazbeck as the union organizer dynamically takes over with his strong acting and vocal force, reflecting what has been largely missing.
Earlier, Lara Pulver as Moll, a prostitute, has some touching moments, especially when she sings Blitztein’s excellent number “Nickel Under the Foot.” However, even then there is not the production oomph that should be derived. It is not a meant as a slight to Pulver, but if you go on YouTube you can find a performance of that role by Patti LuPone in which, Lupone’s special talent aside, the staging and interaction with the actor involved packs the kind of production energy so lacking in Doyle’s version.
Yes, the pro-union theme so vital in the unionization battles of the 1930s is clearly there, along with the domination by the powers that be in the fictional Steeltown. We could use some of the pro-labor spirit today, a fact not lost in Doyle’s choosing to do “The Cradle Will Rock” at this moment. However, the work deservs a larger-scale production that would try to recapture the original scope of what Blitzstein envisioned.
Other cast memners include Ken Barnett, Eddie Cooper, Benjamin Eakeley, David Garrison, Ian Lowe, Kara Mikula, Sally Ann Triplett and Rema Webb. At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed April 4, 2019.