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Blitzstein: Burlesque and Blistering

Saratoga Springs (Little Theater)
07/09/2017 -  & July 11*, 13, 16, 2017
Marc Blitzstein: The Cradle Will Rock
Ginger Costa-Jackson (Moll), Andy Papas (Gent), Efrain Solis (Dick), Dylan Elza (Cop), Jorgeandrés Carnargo (Dr. Specialist), Justin Hopkins (Reverend Salvation), Scott Purcell (Dauber), Michael Anderson (Professor Trixie), Eric McConnell (President Prexy), Adam Bradley (Professor Mamie), Brian Wallin (Editor Daily), John Tibbetts (Yasha), Keith Jameson (Harry Druggist), Audrey Babcock (Mrs. Mister), Matt Boehler (Mr. Mister), Spencer Viator (Junior Mister), Heather Jones (Sister Mister), Miles Herr (Steve), Andy Papas (Bugs), Meghan Kasanders (Sadie Polock), Michael Anderson (Gus Polock), Christopher Burchett (Larry Foreman), Miles Herr (Professor Scoots), Nina Spinner (Ella Hammer), Meghan Kasanders, Efrain Solis (Reporters)
The Opera Saratoga Orchestra and Chorus, John Mauceri (Conductor)
Lawrence Edelson (Director and Choreographer), Martin T. Lopez (Scenic Designer), Brandon Stirling Baker (Lighting Designer)

G. Costa-Jackson, C. Burchett, J. Mauceri (© Samuel A. Dog)

Some 80 years ago, The Cradle Will Rock, a blazing pro-union anti-capitalist opera written and composed by Marc Blitzstein was banned by the New York Police Department. Director Orson Welles and the entire ensemble did find a theater that night. But it says so much about this Brechtian/Weil-ish masterpiece, that today, America still stands on the cusp of censorship. (That we aren’t in the throes of a new McCarthyism is more to the stupidity of the self-appointed censors than the principles.)

It also says a lot that Opera Saratoga–an ensemble in a town which was once known as the home of Gilded Age plutocrats–should produce this opera. And produce it with all the veracity, the energy and the fun which good protests deserve.

In a certain way, The Cradle Will Rock goes back to the Ben Jonson Comedy of Humors, where each character becomes his/her own name. Thus, Reverend Salvation, Dr. Specialist, college President Prexy and Editor Daily, as well as the “Mister Family” Mr. Mister, Mrs. Mister, Junior and Sister Mister. Even more essential is that Marc Blitzstein spared nobody.

A lesser writer would pillory politicians and lawyers. Blitzstein never took this easy route.

Like the unaccountable Establishment today the podium with a Cross of Money, pleading for “collections” “Doctor” Jorgeandrés Carnargo making a false diagnosis to save embarrassment for his boss. “Editor” Brian Wallin singing about “freedom of the Press” for journalism that sells itself to the man who pays his salary.

That last is hardly an exaggeration. One of Schenectady’s finest independent columnists, a native of Saratoga Springs, was given the heave-ho a few years ago because he wrote a column not au courant with the Powers That Be.

Did Blitzstein, alone amidst the pantheon of gay composers who never denied his sexuality, compose the blatantly gay scene for Dauber and Yasher? Without a libretto, I don’t know, but the pas de deux by Scott Purcell and John Tibbetts was hilarious (and no more prurient than a scene from Cage aux folles.) They too sell their art for the man we now call The Suit.

Librettist Blitzstein labeled his Suit Mr. Mister, the angular., dismal, gloomy Matt Boehler, making his way around his serfs, singing dancing and showing that he is the Boss.

Not only himself but his ugly family: Donald Junior Mister and Eric Mister. (Sorry, that was a misprint. I meant Junior Mister and Sister Mister.)

Oh we have some nicer people. Where each Establishment figure is a prostitute, the real harlot, Moll (a Merman-type voice by Ginger Costa-Jackson) opens the show, only to be arrested by a corrupt cop, and consoled by a druggist, himself a victim of the Mister Mister clan. And of course Larry Foreman, played with authority by Christopher Burchett, a man who shuns bribes and ushers in the final parade of Union stalwarts.

Ensemble (© Samuel A. Dog)

But now we come to the crux of this production. With 24 actors/singers/dancers, most of whom have been erroneously arrested showing their guilt in court, does this Opera Saratoga production succeed?

It does, for the simplest of reasons. Lawrence Edelson, a kind of Wellesian talent himself, is not only Artistic Director of Opera Saratoga, but both directed and choreographed his massive cast with volition and the most muscular vigor. The ensemble of cellmates prance and dance inside their cells, they each come out to offer their hypocritical sermons. The stage is not in continuous movement, but Moll and the Druggist, a kind of sideline Greek Chorus, the jailed ensemble propelling their art and the soloists selling themselves on stage, give that energy which one supposes Welles gave to the original cast.

More essential, Mr. Edelson never stoops to Camp or even anachronisms. Yes, his characters verge on the burlesque, but this was exactly where Blitzstein in his Agri-Prop opera meant it to be.

Even more unique, this is apparently the first time in eight decades where Blitzstein’s original orchestration has been used, and it is a clash-boom winner, conducted by John Mauceri. In fact, digging up that score–a score which sounds like the Kurt Weill’s Weimar Republic sounds but has crazy inner quotes from classics and jazz. Apparently it will be recorded soon, and I will certainly pick up the disc.

S. Vator, H. Jones (© Samuel A. Dog)

And in one of many favored moments, Blitzstein savors then trendy Hawaii. Junior Mister has fouled up his family so much that they’re sending him off to Hawaii. That song is clever, vicious, ironic, even tuneful.

In fact, there is so much to like in this production that one almost forgets its original purpose. In 1937, that was for the Triumph of Unionism over the Masters of the Universe. Today, it should be the Triumph of Accountability over the Forces of Corporate/Political Mendacity.

True enough, the comedy of this opera was so great that the final march and chorus of workers marching down the aisles was something of an anti-climax. Still, I for one, was ready to rise to the occasion and ring out with a Red-hot version of Internationale. On second thought, with the theater, a feet from a tennis court, with a matinee audience of properly attired ladies and gentlemen in still utterly gentrified Saratoga Springs, I resisted, resignedly joining the politely enthusiastic audience.

Harry Rolnick



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