The Arty Semite

A Depression-Era Allegory Comes in From the Cold

By Schuyler Velasco

  • Print
  • Share Share
Nathaniel A. Siegel
Michael Schilke as a newspaper editor and Paul J. Malamphy as Mr. Mister in ‘The Cradle Will Rock.’

Occasionally, the legend surrounding a work of art takes on a life of its own: I can’t hear Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” for instance, without imagining the riot that it caused at its Paris premiere (a scene that’s all the more scandalous given the oppressively tomb-like atmosphere of most classical music concerts, which makes even sneezing out of turn a horrifying, shameful prospect).

The story of “The Cradle Will Rock,” which kicked off New York’s Howl! Arts Project earlier this month at Theatre 80, and returns for two final performances tonight and tomorrow night, gives Stravinsky’s riot a run for its money.

In the summer of 1937, Orson Welles and his creative team were all set for the opening of a new musical by Marc Blitzstein, an anti-capitalist allegory about civic corruption and corporate greed. Finding themselves locked out of their original theater by order of the federal government, without sets, lights, or an orchestra, Welles and company rented a new theater and a piano, intending for Blitzstein to read the libretto and sing the songs himself, alone on a bare stage. As he began, the show’s cast members, who had been prohibited by Actors’ Equity from performing “onstage,” stood up in the audience and played their parts from their seats. It’s the sort of tale that theater die-hards hold up as an example of the “possibilities of live performance.”

Honoring that famed, bare-bones original presentation, Theatre 80’s earnest, appealingly game production of “The Cradle Will Rock,” directed by Larry Marshall, is mounted with no sets and minimal costuming. Set in Steeltown, U.S.A., “Cradle” opens with a streetwalker (Laura Wolfe), being taken to night court by police, where a group of men dubbed the Liberty Committee is also being held.

The Liberty Committee, (mission statement: “to combat socialism, communism, radicalism, and especially unionism!”) is made up of Steeltown’s most prominent citizens: the clergyman, the newspaper editor, university professors, artists, and even the town physician, all appointed by Mr. Mister (Paul J. Malamphy), resident steel tycoon and ruthless capitalist. As the musical’s 10 scenes unfold (each introduced, in a charming touch, by pianist and music director Mimi Stern-Wolfe), we learn how Mr. Mister bends the entire town to his interests, with the chief aim of quelling the workers’ unions: The newspaper prints the stories he wants printed; the clergyman’s sermons advocate war so that the price of steel will go up; the doctor lies and testifies that a worker injured in Mr. Mister’s unsafe factory had been drinking.

Written in the throes of the Great Depression, “Cradle’s” satire certainly resonates in today’s economic climate, though some scenes hold up better than others. At its best, the show is eerily prescient: The highlight of the night is a vignette in which Mr. Mister auditions university professors to give a speech convincing students to take a military training course. The winning presentation, from Professor Trixie (the hilariously belligerent Greg Senf), is just a series of buzzwords: “Army! Power! Women!” he barks, to Mr. Mister’s delight. It’s like Blitzstein saw Twitter coming.

The somewhat uneven cast is buoyed by a few very capable performances. Juggling numerous parts, Brian Henry is a standout, especially as Mr. Mister’s dolt of a son, Junior Mister. “Cradle” would be nothing without a properly menacing, despicable Mr. Mister, and Malamphy rises to the occasion. Darcy Dunn is charismatically squirm-inducing as the conniving Mrs. Mister, and Gavin Esham had me laughing through most of his supporting work, particularly a thoroughly weird take on the timid professor Mamie.

Some of the directorial decisions were questionable, however. A few of the performers were on book, which was fine until they were required to dance. Furthermore, in the midst of all this working class, revolutionary spirit, I had trouble justifying the decision to make audience members pay $20 for a performance where books are anywhere near the stage. Still, when the cast came out for their curtain call, chanting, “the cradle will ROCK!!” over the score’s final bars, I found myself whooping and pumping my fist right along with them.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Unionism, Twitter, Theatre 80, Theater, The Rite of Spring, The Cradle Will Rock, Paul J. Malamphy, Paris, Orson Welles, Mimi Stern-Wolfe, Laura Wolfe, Marc Blitzstein, Larry Marshall, Igor Stravinsky, Howl! Arts Project, Howl!, Greg Senf, Gavin Esham, Darcy Dunn, Brian Henry, Actors' Equity

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.