Classic Stage Company, Lynn F. Angelson Theater
136 East 13th St. between Third & Fourth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 19, $77-$127
At the end of 2018, Classic Stage Company put on a less-than-compelling version of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 parable, The Resistible Rise of Arturio Ui; the history of the show, which was not produced in Brecht’s lifetime because of its sociopolitical content, is more interesting than the revival itself. The same can be said of CSC’s current adaptation of Marc Blitzstein’s heavily Brechtian allegory, The Cradle Will Rock. The original production of the 1937 “play in music” about unions and corruption had its own problems with unions and the law, forcing producers Orson Welles (also director) and John Houseman to switch theaters at the last minute and the actors to perform their lines from the audience, since they were not allowed onstage. (Tim Robbins documented the crazy story in his 1999 film Cradle Will Rock.)
As with CSC’s Arturio Ui, artistic director John Doyle is unable to convincingly suck us into this Depression-era world. There’s a union drive going on in Steeltown, USA, and the cops are out looking to bust up any public gatherings. The police end up bringing in members of the anti-union Liberty Committee — newspaper head Editor Daily (Ken Barnett), church leader Reverend Salvation (Benjamin Eakeley), musician Yasha (Ian Lowe), artist Dauber (Rema Webb), college president Prexy (Barnett), and college professors Mamie (Sally Ann Triplett), Scoot (Lowe), and Trixie (Kara Mikula) — instead of union organizer Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbeck). They also round up the Moll, a prostitute (Lara Pulver) who is befriended in jail by pharmacist Harry Druggist (Yazbeck). Yes, the names give a clear indication of who the people are, each an archetype, some inspired by such real-life men as Billy Sunday and William Randolph Hearst; one of the detectives is called Dick (Eddie Cooper), and the doctor is Dr. Specialist (Cooper). Steeltown is run by wealthy industrialist Mr. Mister (David Garrison), who formed the Liberty Committee, and his wife, Mrs. Mister (Triplett); seduced by power, they are determined to gain control over the press, the church, the arts, education, the drug companies, the military, the police, and anything else they can get their hands on while dramatically increasing income inequality and the separation of the classes.
Doyle’s set features numerous small drum containers, mostly yellow and red, that are moved about by the cast in various formations (the cross is awesome) and used as chairs, bringing color to this dank society. There is also a piano that is played by several characters to accompany the singing. The Cradle Will Rock is very much a story for today, but the show, which is primarily sung-through but is not considered a fully fledged musical, feels dated and old-fashioned. “The Liberty Committee has been formed by us to combat socialism, communism, radicalism, and especially unionism, and to uphold the Constitution,” Reverend Salvation says in words that could be a tweet from President Trump. Harry Druggist advises the Moll, “Shall I tell you a secret? / We’re in the same old trade as you.” She replies, “You mean you’re all solictin’?” to which he says, “Not quite, but so to say; / They won’t buy our milkwhite bodies, / So we kinda sell out in some other way — to Mr. Mister.” Those points are starkly relevant today but fail to connect despite a game cast that gives it their all as they interact with the audience and the material.