Thursday, February 17, 2011


Rex Smith (center) with the cast of The Blank Theatre Company's
The Cradle Will Rock. Photos: Rick Baumgartner

The 1985 original cast recording of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock contains a twelve-minute legendary introduction by director John Houseman. In it he talks about the creation of the 1930s Federal Theatre Project, of which The Cradle Will Rock was a part, and the remarkable story of how the highly controversial musical was shutdown by the bureaucrats - theatre doors padlocked, materials confiscated, and actors and musicians forbidden to perform by their own unions. But for the passion, dedication and integrity of all the amazing theatre people who believed in The Cradle, it might never have been seen by the public.

The story had a profound effect on me when I first heard it and I still can’t help getting choked up when I listen to it now. In 1937, 18 million Americans were unemployed and labor unions were just beginning to challenge the monopoly of big business. It was a dangerous time, marked by strikes, lockouts and increasing violence.

It may be 2011 now, but an article this month in the Huffington Post reported that more than 29 million Americans are currently out of work, and the daily news still highlights stories of unions and government entities locked in contentious power struggles. Companies like Blackwater, AIG, Goldman Sachs and Enron, who betrayed the trust of hard-working Americans, are now being forced to answer for their actions.

How appropriate then that The Blank Theatre would choose to revive this musical as part of its 20th anniversary season. Artistic Director Daniel Henning first directed The Cradle in 1994 and has remounted it in Hollywood at the Stella Adler Theatre, a perfect venue for the production with its vintage ambience and unassuming style.

The show begins cold, without an overture, as Musical Director David O. walks to the piano and announces “Scene 1, Street corner, Steeltown USA,” then plays the first haunting notes of “Moll’s Song” just as Marc Blitzstein did in 1937.

Blitzstein described his musical as a “labor opera in a style that falls somewhere between realism, romance, satire, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert & Sullivan, Brecht, Weill, and Agitprop” (a term that describes any kind of highly politicized art). And he’s right. It’s all in there. The sophisticated score is full of hidden comedy, like the phrases from the “Star Spangled Banner” that he uses in his “Night Court” sections and the way he tweaks wrong notes to stick out in “Croon Spoon.” Nothing is quite as simple as it appears. David O. brings out every nuance, innuendo and parody that lives between the notes and you can tell he’s having a great time doing it.

The cast is a powerful collection of players that falls into two camps; the working class, championed by union man Larry Foreman (Rex Smith), and the privileged elite, led by Mr. Mister (Peter Van Norden). Norden, who was part of Henning’s ’94 cast, is terrific as the unscrupulous businessman who bulldozes everyone in his path; everyone that is, except Smith. With his chiseled good looks and charismatic intensity, Smith mobilizes the workers to defy Mr. Mister and stand together for a better future.
Matthew Patrick Davis, Rob Roy Cesar, David Trice,
Roland Rusinek, Christopher Carroll and Jim Holdridge

Among those lining up behind Mr. Mister are the members of the Liberty Committee, six bobble-headed yes-men who represent the various realms of corruption. They are a perfectly disjointed sight-gag, loud and brittle in their cacophony, yet deliciously tuned in 6-part Barbershop harmony at a moment’s notice.

Christopher Carroll is the sellout Reverend Salvation, who first hawks peace, then war, as dictated by his benefactress Mrs. Mister (an outstanding Gigi Bermingham). Jim Holdridge and Roland Rusinek are artists whose lewd, crude and indulgent lifestyle is also afforded by the tacky, yet rich Mrs.

Roland Rusinek, Gigi Bermingham and Jim Holdridge

With them are Editor Daily (David Trice) who sacrifices his freedom of the press, President Prexy (Matthew Patrick Davis) who echoes the Mister’s self-serving war efforts, and Dr. Specialist (Rob Roy Cesar) who lies about a man’s death to protect his own reputation. Mr. Mister’s spoiled rotten children, Junior Mister (a crass and wonderful Adam Wylie) and dim-witted Sister Mister (Meagan Smith) complete the wealthy family.

In contrast, the common man’s troubles are represented by Harry Druggist (Jack Laufer), Moll (Tiffany C. Adams), Gus and Sadie Polock (Matt Wolpe and Penelope Yates) and Ella Hammer (Lowe Taylor), honest citizens who can’t catch a break. Their stories are heartbreaking and bring a weighty realism to the production. All turn in powerful performances, with Taylor’s show-stopping number “Joe Worker” a true standout. An interesting side note: Matt’s father Lenny Wolpe was the Druggist in The Blank’s ’94 production.

Completing the cast are utility players Mikey Hawley and Will Barker, who along with Matt Wolpe, play several roles each, comedic to dramatic.

I loved Kurt Boetcher’s stripped down set and Naila Alladin Sanders vintage 1930s costumes. JC Gafford’s lighting was also really effective, especially when highlighting the social commentary within songs. Ah, the glow of the imagined footlights and the stark black and white contrast of the news reel.

A show’s vision begins and ends with the director, and in the case of The Cradle Will Rock, Daniel Henning has proven once again that The Blank is worthy of its many accolades. With impeccable taste and an undeniable respect for the message of the show, he has made it look easy. So get thee to the theatre before this cradle falls on closing night. You’re not likely to see a production like this again.

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