If you’re anywhere near Los Angeles, don’t miss The Cradle Will Rock, the latest addition to the tide of political plays currently flowing across Southern California stages. The Blank Theatre Company’s production of this proletarian theatre classic is as timely today as it was when Marc Blitzstein’s musical premiered in 1937 on Broadway during the last Depression, emerging out of a wave of working-class organizing and sit-down strikes. Now, during the current Depression, workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and beyond are resisting corporate attempts to overturn labor’s historic New Deal advances.
Cradle opens with Tiffany C. Adams’ sultry streetwalker Moll trying to hustle a potential john, as they dicker over prices in Steeltown, USA. She delivers a moving, soulful rendition of the song “Nickel Under the Foot,” which Blitzstein had written as an independent sketch a year previously. German playwright Bertolt Brecht inspired the composer to expand the song into an entire musical around the recurring leitmotif of the prostitution that the capitalist system forces many professionals into. These include members of the tea-party-like “Liberty Committee,” which industrialist Mr. Mister (Peter Van Doren reprises the role he first played in The Blank’s 1994 Cradle) and his “philanthropic” wife Mrs. Mister (Gigi Bermingham) have recruited and bankroll to stem Steeltown’s rising tide of unionization. With great comic panache these sellouts depict what Marx called “ruling class, ruling ideas.” (Blitzstein joined the Communist Party the year after Cradle debuted.)
The portrayal of the Committee in this production, skillfully and drolly directed by Blank founder Daniel Henning, verges on Theater of the Absurd, as the actors skewer various members of the scientific, media, religious, academic, and cultural elite: Dr. Specialist, Editor Daily, Reverend Salvation, President Prexy, musician Yasha and the pretentious painter Dauber. In this latter role, Roland Rusinek stands out in this big cast production, singing, hoofing and spoofing with a Paul Lynde-like gay abandon. This Cradle-robber achieves the near impossible: exquisitely timed scene stealing from superb peers, all of whom flawlessly deliver the theatrical goods.
Also deserving of special mention is Christopher Carroll’s Rev. Salvation, whose sermons on war and peace evolve according to the bottom-line dogma his benefactor Mrs. Mister dictates. David Trice’s Editor Daily is a great critique of mainstream media: He prints all the news that fits Mr. Mister’s views and interests.
But can the Mister Family buy everyone? Have they met their match when they confront labor leader Larry Foreman (Rex Smith; back in 1937 Howard Da Silva originated the role)? Foreman sings the title number: The rocking cradle refers to revolution, which American socialist Eugene V. Debs called “the boldest word in any language.” When the stage explodes with mass revolt, the workers’ picket signs cleverly bear contemporary corporate references, as does the playbill’s cover.
Cradle was the #1 “must see” play on my list of shows I hoped to experience one day; I’d somehow missed earlier local stagings. The Blank’s production not only doesn’t disappoint – it was well worth the wait. Henning’s humorous take on Blitzstein’s musical is surprisingly and refreshingly different from the grimmer version of the scenes glimpsed in Tim Robbins’ stellar Cradle Will Rock (the best American feature film of 1999), which is more about the struggle to present the play than a representation of the show itself.
Except for a piano player (David O) masterfully bringing out the delights and the power of Blitzstein’s score on stage right, the cast appears on a bare stage with few props. Scenic designer Kurt Boetcher thus cleverly recalls the stirring events leading up to Cradle‘s fabled 1937 Broadway opening night, which, as Robbins revealed in his thoughtful movie, and Blitzstein’s biographer Eric Gordon details, almost never occurred.
Amazingly, three-quarters of a century later, as workers continue to fight for their rights, The Cradle Will Rock remains as relevant as ever and still rocks. Bravo!!! (Gordon’s biography Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein, along with a CD of The Blank’s 1994 Cradle production, are on sale at the theatre.)
The Cradle Will Rock is being performed Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through March 20 at the Stella Adler Theatre, Main Stage, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., 2nd floor, Hollywood, CA 90028. For tickets: (323)661-9827; for online tickets go here. Group sales: (323) 871.8018. Incidentally, the performance of Sunday, March 13 is being sponsored by the SoCal District of the CPUSA.