If the performance of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” by the “Encores! Off-Center” series, which just ended its all-too-brief five-performance run July 13 at New York City Center, is not recorded for posterity, it will be a major loss. To call it revelatory is an understatement. This searing, hilarious and deeply affecting production resurrected a show that had been regarded as a famous but historical agitprop curio from the depths of the Depression.
The all-star, multi-talented cast exposed the rich theatricality of Blitzstein’s 1937 attack on the evils of unrestrained capitalism. This semi-staged version, choreographed by Chase Brock, directed by Sam Gold and conducted by Chris Fenwick, had no need of sets to turn the work into a relevant and vital powerhouse in its swift 90-minute arc.
The now-legendary premiere of this work in 1937, recounted in Tim Robbins’s 1999 film of the same name, had to dispense with sets too. It was directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman for the Federal Theater Project of the WPA. However, causing alarm because of its politics, the production was cancelled before it could open. Uncowed, the cast walked to another theater and put the show on anyway, with the composer playing the piano and the actors performing their parts from seats in the audience — defying yet honoring the injunction forbidding them to appear onstage. Largely because of this show, Congress later killed the whole federal program.
Blitzstein is best remembered these days for writing the original English-language version of “The Threepenny Opera” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It was Brecht who gave Blitzstein the idea for the show by encouraging him to investigate how prostitution exists at every level of society. The Weill/Brecht influence is obvious, as is Blitzstein’s melding of classical chops and American popular idiom — which in turn influenced Leonard Bernstein, who became a lifelong champion of Blitzstein’s work. This production showcased the inventive new orchestrations by Josh Clayton for a 14-piece ensemble, reducing the composer’s own version for 32 musicians.
The multi-talented cast was uniformly effective. The show opens with actress Anika Nona Rose as Moll, the prostitute who’s just trying to earn enough to eat. David Margulies plays the Gent, who claims not to have enough money to pay her, but has enough to bribe Dick the cop (Michael Clark), and avoid arrest. In a neat bit of double casting, Ms. Rose later reappears as her complete opposite, Mrs. Mister, wife of Steeltown’s wealthiest man. In a joint tour de force with Matthew Saldivar as Reverend Salvation, she repeatedly transforms his sermons by requiring changes in return for her donations.
Danny Burstein plays Mr. Mister, the man who pulls all the strings in Steeltown. He makes a chilling entrance and maintains the demonic energy of the character throughout, even while he’s arranging his loopy spoiled children to be shipped out of the way in Honolulu, while also forcing Editor Daly (Judy Kuhn) to cater to his demands. The production’s only miscalculation was the 10-year-old Aiden Gemme, who though already a capable pro, is too youthful and distractingly cutesy to make full sense of the adult roles assigned to him.
Raul Esparza, on the other hand, had the most stunning moment of the production, simultaneously displaying both the power of his own performance and as well as that of the whole show. In his final number as the union organizer Larry Foreman, he literally stopped everything just as he was about to sing the line giving the title of the show. Raising his fist high in the air and daring to hold it there in total silence while surveying the audience with his eyes for what seemed like minutes — an eternity in theater time — he challenged us to weigh the significance of Blitzstein’s work. Throughout that shocking halt the packed audience literally held its breath.
That silence proved that the savage humor and brazenness of this show still retains impact. Underlining the argument was a program insert of shocking facts, imitating Harper Magazine’s “Index,” such as that the income of the top 1% of earners in 2007 comprised 23.5% of the economy; that 1929 was the last year that percentage was so high, and that the income inequality has only increased since the 2008 downturn. Blitzstein would have been delighted.