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The Cradle Will Rock

Posted April 4, 2019

Cradle Will Rock reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

CSC’s season began last November with The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Bertolt Brecht’s allegory about the rise of fascism via a Chicago gangster turned tyrant. It ends with a sharp production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, a 1937 pro-labor play told entirely in song.

Like Arturo Ui, Cradle is a Depression-era story of Steeltown, U.S.A., where capitalism and authoritarianism run riot. The play-as-musical indicts police corruption and union busting.

Yes, it has a leftist slant, but it’s hard to argue with its overarching fears: That the rich and powerful, here in the guise of Mister Mister (David Garrison), seek to co-opt the press, science, academia, church and art, effectively bending key societal institutions to its will.

Monetary bribes are couched either as future rewards or clear threats to suppress criticism and free expression. All serve a singular purpose: to keep workers from having control over their lives.

“Some news can be paid to order,” says Larry Foreman (an excellent Tony Yazbeck), the union organizer. It’s hardly a stretch to consider Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network, which many media critics consider a quasi-state-run mouthpiece, to see the contemporary parallel.

In another instance, an anti-union buster accuses Foreman of being pro-Russian. At the time, and for decades after, accusations of being a red was a right-wing slam against anyone who supported fair labor practices. (“Better dead than red!”)

Today, sadly, it’s perceived as a punch line. (Imagine what McCarthy-era red baiters like Roy Cohn would make of the GOP’s embrace of Vladimir Putin.)

In fact, the show’s premiere, directed by Orson Welles, was shuttered on opening night by the feds, given conservative criticism over its pro-labor theme. (It was produced by the Federal Theatre Project, part of the government’s WPA.) Forbidden to perform on stage, producer John Houseman, Welles and Blitzstein found a larger venue — and the cast performed off-stage in a non-federal theater, thereby making theater history.

Warning about the evils of big business, The Cradle Will Rock is noteworthy on several levels.

First, the stylized production offers a stellar ensemble — including Ken Barnett, a notable Lara Pulver, Rema Webb, Kara Mikula, Sally Ann Triplett, Ian Lowe, Benjamin Eakeley and Eddie Cooper — who smartly relay its political parable, thanks to John Dolan’s tight direction. The creative team, lighting designers Jane Cox and Tess James, and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward neatly set the stage.

Second, it’s a relevant reminder that theater can exist as a thoughtful form of protest, rather than strict entertainment. “There is something so damn low about the rich,” a character decries. Whatever the agitprop, it’s a stark warning that greed and hatred are always with us. Talk of “Ku Kluxers hidin’ up there in the cradle of the Liberty Committee,” strikes an all-too-familiar chord. That may be the lasting value of The Cradle Will Rock.  —Fern Siegel