Friday, July 12, 2013

‘The Cradle Will Rock:’ Brecht and Weill For The Rest of Us

Encores!, the well-established and popular series of quickie revivals of seldom-seen Broadway musicals, now has a younger sibling.  Called Encores! Off-Center, it hopes to follow in its predecessor’s successful footsteps by offering up semi-staged versions of Off-Broadway shows. 

To judge from its first production at City Center, Marc Blitzstein’s Depression-era musical The Cradle Will Rock, it is still a little wobbly on its feet. 

In a speech before the invited dress rehearsal, artistic director Jeanine Tesori talked nervously about the breakneck speed at which everyone involved put the production together.  But, with all due respect (and I do have tremendous respect for the near-miracles that Encores! has pulled off over the years), if you want to be part of the Encores! family, that’s how they operate. 

So, let’s take a look at this first effort. 

On the plus side, the cast is wonderful, with outstanding performances by Anika Noni Rose, playing both the downtrodden prostitute Moll and the condescending woman-of-wealth Mrs. Mister;  Judy Kuhn as a corrupt newspaper editor; and Danny Burstein as the arrogant and powerful Mr. Mister, owner of the steel mill and pretty much everyone and everything in the town. In smaller but key roles, Raúl Esparza and Da’Vine Joy Randolph give rousing star-turn performances of their respective numbers as well.

However, there are some problems, beginning with the fact that—even though the talented Sam Gold is credited as director—this is a concert production, not even partially staged. In truth, Encores! itself does not always hit a homerun in the staging department, but still…a concert is a concert.  If you go, know that you will be seeing folks dressed in tuxes and gowns sitting on a row of chairs and rising to sing at stand mikes. 

Second, while the performers are nicely accompanied by a 13-piece orchestra, under the sure hand of Chris Fenwick, the orchestrations are not the ones that Mr. Blitzstein wrote; rather, they have been written by Josh Clayton.  Mr. Clayton is a fine orchestrator, but using the originals is kind of a hallmark of Encores! productions and serves its mission well. 

The Cradle Will Rock
 has a famous (indeed, legendary) history surrounding its first performance, which featured Mr. Blitzstein doing solo duties at the piano.  The new orchestrations are cool, but the originals would have been cooler, and having just a piano accompanying the singers would have been coolest.  A couple of years back, I saw a piano-accompanied production by Theater 1010 at the Park Avenue Christian Church.  It was vibrant, very well performed, and strove to capture the feel of the 1937 original.  I was hoping for the same again.

As for the musical itself, The Cradle Will Rock is a solid work, thanks to Mr. Blitzstein’s timeless and always-engaging jazz and pop-infused score.  It certainly owes much to Brecht and Weill—and the Encores! Off-Center production, which has shrunk the show to a taut 90 minutes, plays up the themes of corruption and cynicism, which, for obvious reasons, resonate with today’s audiences.  It even evokes the spirit of the founder of the philosophy of cynicism, Diogenes, though the use of one of his more stinging quotes displayed in large letters on the back wall:  “In the rich man’s house, the only place to spit is in his face.” 

If you’ve never seen a production of The Cradle Will Rock, I do recommend you go.  This initial outing by Encores! Off-Center may disappoint for the reasons I’ve explained, but given the caliber of talent singing into those mikes, it is certainly worth the visit.

By the way, the other two productions for this initial season are the already-sold-out single performance of Jeanine Tesori’s own Violet (starring Sutton Foster), and Nancy Ford’s I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road.  

I wish Encores! Off-Center well.  To have a home like this for Off Broadway musicals is a splendid enterprise.  Some suggestions:  The Secret Life of Walter MittyDames At SeaLittle Mary Sunshine, or even something else by Blitzstein, perhaps No For An Answer, his follow-up to The Cradle Will Rock.  

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to
share your own theater stories by posting a comment.

No comments:

Post a Comment