Encores! Rocks the Cradle
By Steven Suskin
Encores! Off-Center — the new summer series from the folks at City Center — kicked off its inaugural season July 10 with Sam Gold's production of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock.
A cast of 14 Broadway regulars, including seven Tony Award nominees, helped power the 1937 musical across the footlights to an expectant crowd.
Cradle is one of those musicals which is more famous for its creation than the material itself. A production of the government-funded Federal Theatre Project, sponsorship of the vehemently pro-labor/anti-big business piece was withdrawn on the afternoon of the premiere. Author Blitzstein, director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman found an empty theatre and presented it there without sets, costumes or orchestra; just Blitzstein on stage at a piano, with the cast singing their roles from seats in the house. (This serves as the basis for the fictionalized 1999 Tim Robbins film, Cradle Will Rock.) The performance was so successful and headline-grabbing that the show was extended and presented for a full run.
That said, Blitzstein's first musical retains its power. Gold, the busy Off-Broadway director whose recent work includes the equally stunning Circle Mirror Transformation (at Playwrights Horizons) and Uncle Vanya (at Soho Rep), has chosen to stage the evening in stark concert version style. The cast sits in a line of chairs in front of the orchestra, passing microphones to whomever speaks next. (This is somewhat similar to the very first offerings of Encores!, twenty years ago.) There is much doubling, some of it cross-gendered, and Gold, while meticulously honoring the text, adds some contemporary allusions including the prominent use of an iPad. The director also throws in a couple of grand theatrical effects.
The action is set in night court in Steeltown, U.S.A., with the story told in a series of vaudeville-like flashbacks. The plot revolves around the battle between the powerful Mr. Mister (Danny Burstein) and union organizer Larry Foreman (Raúl Esparza). Our guide through the story, and moral center, is a streetwalking Moll (Anika Noni Rose).
All three give skillful performances: Burstein commandingly blustering around in a real-looking fat suit; Esparza, with his masterful delivery of the "Leaflets" scene and the title song; and Rose with her wearily forlorn "Moll Song" and the powerful "Nickel under the Foot." (Blitzstein initially wrote the latter as a protest song. He played it for Bertolt Brecht, who suggested that it be used as the kernel for a full musical.) Rose, who has been missed in a Broadway musical since her Tony-winning performance in Caroline, Or Change, also provides comedy, doubling as Mrs. Mister.
Highly effective performances come from Peter Friedman, as a guilt-stricken druggist; Judy Kuhn, as a cigar-chomping newspaper editor; Michael Moran and Henry Stram, teaming up as the Mister children and a pair of effete artists; Aidan Gemme, an actual child playing mostly adult roles; and Robert Petkoff, who does a fine job with the "Gus and Sadie Love Song." All but walking away with the proceedings is Da'Vine Joy Randolph (of Ghost), who sits virtually silent until the end when she gives a riveting rendition of "Joe Worker."
Read Playbill.com's interview with Jeanine Tesori, Chris Fenwick and Sam Gold about The Cradle Will Rock.
While the musical has traditionally been performed with piano accompaniment, Cradle was originally intended to be performed with Blitzstein's full (but rarely used) orchestration. Off-Center has commissioned an excellent new 14-piece orchestration by Josh Clayton, which adds to the power of the evening. Credit is also due to music director Chris Fenwick, who oversees both the orchestra and the sometimes-complicated full cast vocals.
Under the artistic direction of composer Jeanine Tesori, Encores! Off-Center continues through the month. The five performances of Cradle (through July 13) will be followed by a one-night-only production of Tesori's own Violet, starring Sutton Foster, on July 17; and Renée Elise Goldsberry in the Gretchen Cryer/Nancy Ford I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road from July 24-27.
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