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The Cradle Will Rock
Arcola Theatre   Winter 2010

Better known for the adventure surrounding its first performance than for its own merits, Marc Blitzstein's 1937 'Labour Opera' proves in this high-intensity revival to be melodic, powerful, moving and entertaining in equally strong proportions.

Famously, the original production was locked out of its theatre by government landlords suspicious of its subversive content. The producers found a new theatre just hours before performance time, paid for it with money borrowed from the press corps there to report on the lock-out, and led the audience to it, where the performers, forbidden by their union to act onstage, did the show from various spots in the boxes, balcony and orchestra pit. The show then went on to a long run of more conventional performances. (The story may be familiar from the semi-documentary 1999 Tim Robbins film.)

Openly political in its subject and point-of-view, Blitzstein's libretto contrasts the plight of a poor streetwalker with the real whores of society, the well-off representatives of church, press, academia and other pillars who sell themselves to the capitalist Big Boss.

As an agitprop piece, it is by definition simplistic and black-and-white - poor people are good, and rich (or even middle class) people are bad, and the characters have semi-allegorical names like Moll, Gent, Editor Daily, Dr. Specialist and the big villain Mr. Mister.

But unlike many agitprop plays, The Cradle Will Rock is artistically sophisticated and thoroughly entertaining, Blitzstein's mastery of a range of musical styles making every scene fresh and enjoyable, even if you don't happen to share his politics (which, by modern terms, are very mildly leftish, extending not much further than being pro-union and sympathetic to the little guy).

Blitzstein's music ranges from the harsh Weill-Eisler sound we associate with Brecht (Blitzstein knew Brecht and would later adapt The Threepenny Opera for its most successful American production), as in the streetwalker's opening song, through the pure Broadway mode of Mrs. Mister's 'Hard Times' and the mock Tin Pan Alley clichés of 'Croon' to the angry blues of 'Joe Worker,' all of them first-class examples of their respective genres and all performed with power under musical director Bob Broad's leadership.

The only thing missing is the 28-strong chorus of the original, which you can imagine swelling out the biggest numbers, especially the climactic title song.

Director Mehmet Ergen moves his performers around the thrust stage effectively, but his major accomplishment is guiding them to respect the material, sing clearly and audibly, and let the score's inherent power come through, and there are particularly strong acting-singing performances by Alicia Davies as the streetwalker, Adey Grummet as Mrs. Mister, Josie Benson as a worker's widow and Chris Jenkins as the union organiser.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Cradle Will Rock - Arcola 2010