This opinionated essay constitutes my review of Brick Road Theatre’s educational, politically relevant, soaring production of LGBT composer Mark Blitzstein’s notorious 1937 play with music The Cradle Will Rock. If you value being an educated (and entertained) theatre patron, don’t miss it. It runs through March 18 at The Cox Playhouse in reconstruction-crazed downtown Plano. I recommend it highly.
If you wonder why the reactionary, NRA brown-nosing, anti-immigration, anti-environmental protections, anti- campaign finance reform, Betsy Devos-supporting, anti-LGBT, misogynist, anti-workers’ rights legislators polluting our government from local chambers to the highest office in the land puff out their chests with roosterish bravado when they solemnly announce they are defunding yet another arts education program in public schools or financial support for the NEA, NEH or PBS in the guise of “balancing the budget”, here’s your reality. They want a nation of ignorant, under-educated citizens easily manipulated into supporting the goals of the wealthy 1% (profits and productive lifestyles for them, nada for the worker class). Take the NEA budget par example. From https://www.arts.gov/news/facts-and-figures: “The National Endowment for the Arts’ FY2017 appropriation of $149.8 million constitutes approximately .004 percent of the federal budget. “ Try to find THAT on a pie chart minus a microscope. So when some local representative, or Rafael “Ted” Cruz, tells you this is budgetary “wisdom”, feel free to remind them curtailing expanded military arsenals or presidential parades costing billions and millions would help “balance the budget” with far greater impact.
What has this to do with The Cradle Will Rock? During the 1930’s Depression, the US government’s WPA funded the Federal Theatre Project, presumably to support American artists by getting them out of breadlines and revolutionary Communist/socialist meetings to create lasting works of art for Americans to enjoy into perpetuity. In 1937 the WPA commissioned respected composer Mark Blitzstein to create a musical. What resulted was The Cradle Will Rock, an unapologetically pro-Union, Bertolt Brecht-inspired satire about greed, government corruption, inequality, sexism, immigration and media collusion, expressed through a multiplicity of musical forms from classical composition to barbershop, vaudeville, tango, rumba, jazz, movie music and more. Its ten scene episodic format explodes with rhythm and energy, informing and illustrating the anti-corruption themes with blinding truth. Not exactly what the status quo guvmint crowd had in mind. Expose the truth? When administrative overseers got word of the “controversial nature” of the musical about to open at The Maxine Elliott Theatre in June, 1937, they refused to let its musicians or actors go onstage, shutting it down. Undeterred, the production’s director Orson Welles and its composer/pianist Blitzstein led the audience and its cast and crew to the nearby Venice Theatre, where they carried on with a ”concert version performance” that morphed into full-on staging. Defiance of government repression is a hallmark tradition of inspired US citizens, from The Revolutionary War, through Suffragists, Stonewall and Vietnam War protests, to today’s teens taking to the streets to protest pervasive, corrupt NRA influence of legislators. The Cradle Will Rock scared the willies out of government authoritarians in 1937 and can inspire more citizens to refute complacency today. Feel the breeze of change at your back? “When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.”
Ninety minutes of splendid theatricality runs wild and free in the intimate Cox Playhouse, sans intermission. Handily directed with elegance and sharp satirical emphasis by regional pro Diana Sheehan, the proficient ensemble of 17 maintains a well-blended sense of history with palpable contemporary vibe throughout. Stand out performances by Mark Oristano as Mister Mister and Jennifer Keunzer as Mrs. Mister bookend the strong cast. Newcomer Rachel Reininger brings poignant depth to the plight of down-and-out call girl Moll, a hapless victim in the #metoo mold. Beyond doubt, the vaudeville duet “Art For Art’s Sake” steals the show in Scene 6. Stan Graner and Phillip Clark perform as a couple of enterprising artists “accommodating” their patroness with unforgivably sleazy panache. The superficial hilarity of their performance reflects the brilliance of composer Blitzstein’s genius as it underscores their dark neediness and willingness to sell their creative souls for patronage, whatever the cost….
The Cradle Will Rock concludes its run Friday March 16, Saturday March 17, and Sunday March 18 at the Cox Playhouse in Plano, Texas. Rock on.
To learn pretty much everything about Mark Blitzstein:
Composer Leonard Lehrman’s Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-Bibliography, published in 2005 by Praeger, is the longest published biographical bibliography of any American composer, 645 pages. In 1939, Leonard Bernstein revived the play at Harvard, narrating it from the piano as Blitzstein had done. Blitzstein attended the performance. He and Bernstein became close friends after.
The political opinions fervently espoused in this review do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of Brick Road Theatre or its management, but I hope they do. AB