Plano — Brick Road Theatre once again proves that less is more, in a bare-bones but beautifully effective production of Marc Blitzstein’s brilliant agit-prop musical The Cradle Will Rock, playing through this weekend at Cox Playhouse in Plano.
In 1937, classically trained composer Blitzstein, collaborating with producer Orson Welles and director John Houston, created The Cradle Will Rock with funding from the New Deal-era Federal Theater Project of the Works Progress Administration. (The WPA, later renamed Works Project Administration, was also responsible for the construction of the building in which this production of The Cradle Will Rock is produced.) The original production, with full orchestra and elaborate sets, was canceled by the powers-that-be because of the allegedly “radical” bent of the script, so Bitzstein and the cast hastily improvised a stripped-down production at a different theater featuring Blitzstein narrating from the piano with cast members delivering their lines and songs from seats in the audience.
Audiences at the Brick Road Theatre production experience what is largely a renewal of that first performance—all muscle and no frills, except for period-appropriate costumes, in a space so intimate that no amplification is required. And we wouldn’t want it any other way: director Diana Sheehan has magnificently captured the energy that inflamed Blitzstein and inspired him to create this masterpiece during one of the darkest chapters in America’s history.
Blitzstein’s powerful, frankly metaphoric text comes across at full strength in this setting, and his lean, pungent musical style — borrowing lavishly from a huge array of sources — resonates with wonderful urgency as performed at the piano by Bruce Greer, replicating the role Blitzstein played onstage at the premiere. (An “orchestra” of acoustic piano with one good pianist is an option that should be considered much more often by small theater companies, in preference to the whiney artificiality of digital keyboard.) Each song is a succinct sketch; the lyrics are boldly and purposely simplistic, almost like slogans. The multi-layered, climax-building counterpoint of the finale reminds that Blitzstein was, indeed, an inspired composer of the first rank.
In addition to pianist/narrator Greer, an ensemble of 15 singing actors (several covering multiple roles) bring Blitzstein’s searing vision to life. Set in fictional “Steeltown, USA ” (a distillation of industrial urban American during the Depression era), The Cradle Will Rock unveils, by turn, the hypocrisy and greed of various elements of American society. (By totally unplanned coincidence, this production lands concurrently with the sudden reemergence of the American steel industry in the news in relation to tariff policy.)
The entire cast contributes to an ideal ensemble effect, with several noteworthy standouts. Mark Oristano and Jennifer Kuenzer neatly evoke the unbothered commanding presence of the capitalist class as Mr. Mister and Mrs. Mister; Doug Fowler captures the essence of sanctimonious religiosity as Reverend Salvation. Chapman Blake bounds from the role of the irritatingly spoiled Junior Mister to the oppressed but optimistic immigrant laborer Gus Polock, while Rachel Reininger displays equally impressive range by doubling as the hyperactive Sister Mister and the oppressed working girl who turns to prostitution for survival. Elisa Danielle James, who doubles as Editor Daily (representing the corrupt press) and as Sadie Polock, the immigrant’s wife, shows off the strongest voice in the cast in her darkly romantic, waltzy love duet with Blake. Meanwhile, Francis Fuselier as Harry Druggist, the small shop owner who has lost his business and fallen into homeless alcoholism, provides a steady undercurrent to the entire drama, delivering the key line in which he points out that everyone in Steeltown (i.e., modern America) has sold out to Mr. Mister (i.e., capitalism and material greed).
Well, not quite everyone. Union organizer and agitator Larry Foreman (here played with rough-and-ready dynamism by Joey Folsom), an unseen but oft-mentioned presence since the beginning of the play, finally appears onstage near the end to reject the offer of a pay-off from Mr. Mister. For the first time in The Cradle Will Rock, Blitzstein gives a drop of optimism and idealism, along with the hope that the people, united, can stand together to resist the governing forces of greed and collusion — a message from 1937 that echoes powerfully in 2018 in this arrestingly bold, straight-forward production.