NEW YORK—The New York City Center’s “Encores! Off-Center” series kicks off with “The Cradle Will Rock” (music, lyrics, and book by Marc Blitzstein). This show is unusual in that the circumstances surrounding its original presentation have surpassed the show itself in importance to theater history.
Originally presented in 1937 by the Federal Theatre Project, the show’s funding was pulled four days before the scheduled opening. This was supposedly due to the work’s anti-big business and pro-union themes.
The producers were able to find another theater for the show. Yet, since the actors still weren’t permitted to appear on stage—due to union restrictions—they performed their parts while sitting in the audience.
The story takes place in Steeltown, U.S.A. Mr. Mister (Danny Burstein) runs the town with an iron hand; he controls not only the town’s steel factory but also the press, the police, the courts, as well as members of the academic, religious, and medical communities.
Mr. Mister makes sure that only his message gets out to the people, while any problems that may arise, such as someone getting hurt in his factory, are quickly smoothed over. Blame is cast anywhere but in his direction.
Mr. Mister is currently fighting a battle against Larry Foreman (Raúl Esparza), a worker at the steel mill who’s trying to unionize the employees.
Since the message of “The Cradle Will Rock” is quite clear from the outset, the power of the story depends on how the tale is told and how one gets to the ending. Yet, sadly, the script is both somewhat dated and rather simplistic, told without much depth of characterization or plot.
For example, in the first scene the audience is introduced to Moll (Anika Noni Rose), a prostitute and the most sympathetic person in the piece (other than Foreman), yet she doesn’t reappear until an hour into this 95-minute presentation. Then the focus is quickly shifted away from Moll, who only appears intermittently throughout the remainder of the show.
There’s also Mr. Mister’s Liberty Committee, a group of yes-men and stooges whose purpose is to combat communism, socialism, and, of course, unionism. None of these characters really have any substance. Instead they are symbols of what happens when you bow down to big business—a point that the script delivers with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Both Burstein and Esparza do fine jobs in their respective roles, yet their characters are also bound by stereotypical limits. One is the mustache-twirling, scenery-chewing villain of the tale; the other is the principled white knight committed to doing right above all.
Where the show does shine is in the wonderful Blitzstein score. It is alternately mournful and bitingly satirical, especially when the lyrics attack the various groups Mr. Mister has under his thumb.
Reverend Salvation (Matthew Saldívar), due to financial inducement from Mrs. Mister (Rose), changes a hopeful message of peace to one of patriotic fervor for war—because war is good business for the steel industry.
There’s also a good number showing two supposedly principled artists (Henry Stram, Martin Moran). They gleefully allow Mrs. Mister to become their patron and choose a generous financial gift rather than worry about the sanctity of their art.
Elsewhere, Rose does a wonderful turn with the soulful “Nickel Under the Foot,” while Da’Vine Joy Randolph brings the house down with “Joe Worker.” The latter is a powerful tune about what happens when ordinary people are hurt on the job due to those in power being allowed to run roughshod over their workers.
After an initial scene that seems stilted, the entire cast works pretty well together with many of the performers playing multiple roles. Rose is excellent as Moll and Mrs. Mister. The former is a representative of people being crushed by the system, the latter a representative of the system that’s doing the crushing.
Moran and Stram also have fun with a comic turn as the children of Mr. and Mrs. Mister. The two youngsters are well-heeled members of the “idle rich.”
One character with potential who is never really developed is Harry Druggist (Peter Friedman). He is a shell of the man he once was. While we learn what set him on his path, we never see his complete fall, something that would have made the character more interesting.
Another memorable sequence involves a loving Polish couple (Robert Petkoff, Judy Kuhn) who have the misfortune of becoming a means to an end for Mr. Mister.
The show is nicely directed by Sam Gold and the musical accompaniment by the Encores! Orchestra under the baton of Chris Fenwick is very good indeed.
“The Cradle Will Rock” makes for an interesting curio piece, though whether there’s a future for the show anywhere but in an environment such as this is open to question.
Also in the cast are Eisa Davis, Aidan Gemme, David Margulies, and Michael Park.
“The Cradle Will Rock”
New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Closed: July 13
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.