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A CurtainUp Review
The Cradle Will Rock
By Paulanne Simmons
When the wind blows the cradle will rock.—Larry Foreman
Marc Blitzstein's 1937 Federal Theatre Project musical The Cradle Will Rock is historically significant for many reasons. It was the very first concept musicals. Blitzstein, whose first musical it was, described it as "a labor opera composed in a style that falls somewhere between realism, romance, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert and Sullivan, Brecht, and agit-prop" It was produced by John Houseman and directed by a very young Orson Welles.
But what made The Cradle Will Rock's opening o one of the proudest moments in theatrical history is what happened when political concerns led Actors Equity to forbid its members from appearing on stage for the show's opening at the Maxine Elliot Theatre. Welles and Houseman decided The Cradle Will Rock would go on without sets, lights or orchestra, with Blitzstein onstage at the piano and the actors in the audience. Most of the cast and one accordion player came to the new theater (the Venice, 21 blocks uptown), Blitzstein sang eight of the roles and some of the actors doubled up on other ones. When the show was over it seemed as if the audience's cheers and applause might go on forever.
After Welles resigned form the Federal Theatre Project and Houseman was fired for insubordination, they formed the Mercury Theatre and put the show on all over New York as well as in the steel districts of Pennsylvania, at this point with the actors sitting in three rows of chairs on the stage. And that is the way the show is now presented by Theatre Ten Ten in a church basement at 1010 Park Avenue. What could be more appropriate?
David Fuller directs a cast of 19 performers who enact the union struggles that went on between the two world wars. The excellent Bill Newhall is Mr. Mister, the wealthy steel mill owner who has organized a liberty committee to fight the unions. When an inept cop (Michael C. O'Day) arrests the committee, not realizing that its members had gathered to prevent the union organizer, Larry Foreman (the stirring Josh Powell), from speaking, the committee ends up in night court.
A series of scenes reveals how all the members have been corrupted by Mr. Mister and his money. Reverend Salvation (Damron Russel Armstrong) preaches peace or war in accordance with Mr. Mister's financial needs. Harry the druggist (D. Zhonzinsky) is persuaded to go along with the framing of a suspected agitator, which results in the death of his son as well as the agitator and his wife. Dr. Specialist (Dan Hermann) agrees to say that a worker was intoxicated when he was injured on the job.
Only Moll, the local hooker (Bellavia Mauro); Ella Hammer (Sarah Rebekah), the wife of the injured worker; and the druggist who has lost his son are willing to fight Mr. Mister and his henchmen. But when Foreman finally appears in the second act he is defiant. He knows that the winds of time are on his side and they are blowing the rocking cradle off its comfortable perch in the trees.
Despite its obvious political message The Cradle Will Rock is a very funny and entertaining show. Blitzstein's varied score is upbeat and often catchy. His jokes are all at the expense of the ridiculous bad guys. Still, it takes a certain commitment for Blitzstein's meaning to find its way to the heart. Thankfully, in this revival, the simple dignity of this fine play is enhanced by the enthusiasm of a tremendously talented cast performing on a bare stage with only their fine voices to ring out Blitzstein's passionate message.
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