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A Theatre-Piece For All Seasons

New York
St. Marks In The Bowery Church
02/08/2009 -  
Marc Blitzstein: The Cradle Will Rock

Mark Peters (Larry Foreman, a union organizer), Ben Strothman (A Gent/Steve, the Druggist’s Son/President Prexy), Alex Michaels (Doctor Specialist/Junior Mister), Greg Senf (Bugs, a Thug/Professor Trixie), Joshua Issacs (A Dick/Gus Polack), Kate Canary (Sadie Polock//Reporter), Laura Newman (The Moll), Paul J. Malamphy (Mr. Mister/ A Cop), Michael Schilke (Editor Daily), James Solomon Benn (Professor Mamie), Ezra Barnes (Yasha, The Violinist), Michael Iannucci (Dauber, the Artist), Mark Singer (Reverend Salvation), Darcy Dunn (Mrs. Mister), Rayna Hickman (Sister Mister/A Reporter), Steve Sieck (Harry Druggist), Tom Savage (Professor Scoot), Jeannine Otis (Ella Hammer, a worker), Tony Cangelosi (Clerk),Michael Schilke (Attendant)
Mimi Stern-Wolfe (Music Direction-Pianist)
Lisa Brailoff (Stage Direction), Jeannine Otis (Special Consultant)
Produced by Downtown Music Productions for East Village Concert Series

Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 stage work, The Cradle Will Rock is not easy to classify. It could be called “a play with music”, but that is too insignificant. It is certainly not a musical comedy, since, with all the laughter it is very serious—or at least very polemical. To call it a “ballad-opera” in the tradition of Beggar’s Opera or Brecht’s Threepenny Opera doesn’t ring true either, since none of the songs are ballads. In fact, Blitzstein’s songs and incidental music are as sophisticated as any American operas written at that time.

Blitzstein idolized Brecht, of course, and much of the music is derivative of Kurt Weill’s songs for the German composer. But Blitzstein, who studied with Arnold Schoenberg and Nadia Boulanger, hardly was a plagiarist. He may have wanted non-singers to be able to sing this, but it takes real professionals. The almost continuous piano work—played well indeed by Mimi Stern-Wolf in the too-resonant chambers of the church—has complex, always changing meters. And just as John Gay put together songs from “recent” 18th Century operas, Blitzstein could quote from Beethoven, Verdi, awful radio crooning songs and yes, Cole Porter (Boola-Boola). But it is always pulsing, dynamic, innovative.

Dramatically, Cradle Will Rock falls in line with Clifford Odets’ early pieces like Waiting For Lefty, though that was simple stuff. This, though while it uses eponymous titles (Mr. Mister, President Prexie, Reverend Salvation) is not simply a series of caricatures. Most of the many characters in the cast have their own arias, dramatic scenes and, in what might be called “musical political cartoons”, a real personality.

One could say that the short ten scenes were reminiscent of Wozzeck, but Berg himself was influenced by film, and Blitzstein probably felt that cinema was the best way to present his message.

It is also—more than 70 years after Orson Welles produced it in secret to avoid arrest—an electrifying show. And these two-dozen professional New York actors presented it seriously, soberly and powerfully. No attempt was made to update it, the costumes were in line with the professions (hat for Editor Daily, great coats for Mr. Mister), and the stage was as bare as Welles’s original in 1937.

The ten scenes should run together with one intermission, and while the recurring scene is a Night Court, we are presented with well drawn outside locales: a hotel, a drugstore, a university. But surprise! Surprise! Little about the formation of a union in Steeltown is mentioned until the penultimate scene. Instead, we have scenes of the “enemy”: the Liberty Committee, which has been falsely arrested.

They are a motley group. Our Reverend Salvation (played with arrogant condescension by Mark Singer) takes his money, and preaches for war, against socialism. A kind of Yiddish vaudeville team of musician and painter (Ezra Barnes and Michael Iannucci) do a song and dance about how art is made better by money.

Then we have Editor Dailey (Michael Schilke in a reporter cap right out of Ben Hecht movies), sings—somehow rhyming “freedom of the press depends on who pays the best.”

But now we come to the two antagonists, Mr. Mister with revolting family, versus Larry Foreman and worker, who want to revolt in quite another way. Paul J. Malumphy has the most operatic voice in the show, and his wickedness could well suit a Scarpia in Tosca. He is big-chested, moves with elephantine grace (he does a hula in one part), and is evil until he visits the office of Doctor Specialist. Then he cries like a baby. We pity him.

Against Mr. Mister, but showing up late in the show is Larry Foreman. He sings the title anthem, not a lullaby, that “When The Wind Blows, the Cradle! Will! Rock!” and he looks the part. With him is his worker, Jeannine Otis, who tells of her life as a worker in a the only song which could be called an aria.

But at this point in the performance, we have gone through the wicked people of society and have simplified the music down to the message. It took a very sophisticated composer indeed to subtly change the sounds towards something approaching proletariat Woody Guthrie style, but he managed it

One could not actually say that this Depression-era theatre piece actually refers to our own time, since Blitzstein felt that unions were the panacea. We have no panaceas in this age (the word Stimulus sounds like a rival pill to Viagra), but great music transcends eras. Blitzstein’s “serious” opera Regina never had the power of this work, and a production like this can be an inspiration for any composer of any genre.

Harry Rolnick



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