Marc Blitzstein’s Depression-era pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock has always held an almost mythical “bad boy” spot in the history of theater, so it was really no surprise to me that the always irrepressible Head Trick Theatre chose to produce this rarely seen script. The play’s pedigree is pretty impressive as it was produced by John Houseman and originally directed by a young Orson Welles for the Federal Theatre Project, a government funded relief program that gave needed jobs to theater artists during the Great Depression. At that time, Orson Welles was quickly becoming known as an innovative and provocative auteur,, especially after his adaptation of Macbeth set in the voodoo laden world of Haiti, boasting an all African-American cast.
Welles’ plans to bring The Cradle Will Rock to Broadway in 1937 hit a massive roadblock when they found themselves locked out of the theater and were told performances were cancelled. Whether the closing was motivated by the politics of the play or truly just lack of government funding to continue the show is still a debated issue today. True to form, Welles marched the waiting ticket holders 20 blocks to the commercial Venice Theatre, but immediately ran into more trouble when his musicians refused to play in a union house for non-union wages. Adding to the irony of the situation, the actor’s own union stated that the production could not be performed on any stage but the Federal Theatre. With Welles’ prompting, author Marc Blitzstein took to the bare stage, sat at the piano and started singing through his show alone. One-by-one, the cast members soon rose from the audience and joined their voices with Blitzstein’s, thereby skirting the union rules by never taking the stage in order to perform the pro-union musical in full.
And what an anti-establishment fueled musical it is! The sung through show is an allegorical tale told in broad strokes, with vignettes depicting the corruption, desperation and greed slowly swallowing the souls of the populace of small town USA (or in this case, “Steeltown, USA.”)
In Head Trick’s production, the script, songs and intent of the original have been kept intact. No overt attempt to mirror the current political climate has been made and, aside from a few modern touches, the show stands as it did in 1937 – on a bare stage, with work clothes for costumes and a single keyboardist joined by cast members rising from the audience.
As Mr. Mister, the personification of evil big business, Robert Grady is all blustery Sturm und Drang, but it is his ever-so-proper wife Mrs. Mister (Amy McGuirk) who is the true manipulator at work. With a flick of her white opera gloves and the power of her checkbook she pushes her husband’s business agenda ever forward.
In stark contrast, we meet destitute and diminutive street walker Moll (Katrina Rossi) who finds herself thrown in jail by police after an altercation with a reluctant john (Ronnie Young.) Rossi has a clear and sweet soprano voice, more suited to her later character Sadie’s personality than to this supposedly rough and tumble prostitute she first plays.
As Mr. Mister gains control over every business in town he also gains full support from all the “best” townspeople, dubbing them the Liberty Committee. The one lone voice to rise up against the established Mr. Mister and his Committee is pro-union instigator Larry Foreman (a wonderful Ian Hudgins.) It is his speech at a pro-union rally that causes upheaval in the town, with an angry mob breaking out in response and the Liberty Committee mistakenly arrested in the process.
The 15-member ensemble delivers some very strong harmonies on the group numbers, while each plays multiple roles throughout the show. Director Maxfield wisely gives each actor their “moment” to shine. Of particular mention is Peter Bowden’s wild range of comedic characters, Christine Pavao’s clever turn as desperate artist Dauber, Sandy Cerel’s comic take on a pro-war professor turned recruiter, Rose Jermusyk’s dry-witted newspaper flack Editor Daily, young Cecily Goulis’ sweetly genuine performance as the doomed Stevie and Corinne Wahlberg’s emotional “11th hour” rendition of Joe Worker, a song that truly electrified the house.
There may be a reason that this script is not seen on stage often. Unabridged, this play is a bit overwrought in its repeated attempts to get the pro-union message across to the audience. Perhaps it is a testament to how far we have come that it is common knowledge that strength in numbers empowers the working man. In the end, while the director and her cast turned in a committed rendition of the play, I was not in need of an object lesson, per say, but wanted more of an emotional journey from the tale.
The Cradle Will Rock by Marc Blitzstein, directed by Rebecca Maxfield with musical direction by Noah Fields, at AS220 Black Box, 95 Empire Street, Providence. Performances are Thursday through Saturday, October 20 – 22 at 7:30pm and October 23 at 2:00pm. Admission is free to Brown/RISD students with ID.