You’ve probably heard the story, or maybe you saw the Tim Robbins movie. In 1937, the WPA shut down the Federal Theatre Project’s new “play in music” four days before opening, fearing that its radicalism and pro-union message were just too incendiary. John Houseman (producer), Orson Welles (director), and Marc Blitzstein (author) were determined to put it on somehow. On opening night, forbidden from using the designated theater and lacking an orchestra, they sent an actor out to find a piano. The audience was marched 21 blocks to another, vacant theater somebody else had found. Not allowed to appear onstage, the actors performed from the house, with Blitzstein, the only nonunion performer, playing the score from the stage. The effect was electrifying, and The Cradle Will Rock went on to find other backing and enjoy a successful, conventionally staged run.
It’s a unique piece, an agitprop cri de coeur that Blitzstein truly thought would change the world—and maybe it did, a little. Let’s thank Classic Stage Company for bringing it back, even in John Doyle’s pallid production. This Cradle doesn’t violate the material, like Sam Gold’s unspeakably smart-ass 2013 Encores! staging; it’s just badly cast, badly sung, badly designed (by Doyle), and badly staged.
Doyle is up to his usual trick of having the actors double as musicians. That doesn’t hurt too much here, as there’s just a piano, with Ken Barnett, Benjamin Eakeley, Ian Lowe, and Kara Mikula taking turns at the keyboard and occasionally shouting lines from there. Beyond that, his concept seems to be starkly presentational: the actors lurk at CSC’s far wall, drifting among empty barrels beneath crisscrossing steel wires and emerging stageward to perform scenes. It’s also obvious: Much literal tossing around of dollars, because, you know, money is power.
The casting, though, is flat-out strange, and so are Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes. To tell the tale of labor-management strife in Steeltown, U.S.A., with the ultrapowerful Mr. Mister (David Garrison) pitted against the organizing efforts of Larry Foreman (Tony Yazbeck), Hould-Ward has decked out nearly every character, rich or poor, in jeans and rags; they all look like Rosie the Riveter. All the double- and triple-casting requires most of them to shift between characters of privilege and common folk, which, with no visual distinction, gets very confusing.
Blitzstein’s score doesn’t burst with melody, though he does get in a couple of wicked pop-song parodies, “Croon Spoon” and “Honolulu.” What it does do is eloquently voice the needs, frustrations, and strengths of the underclass, from the prostitute Moll (Lara Pulver) to the devastated factory worker Ella Hammer (Rema Webb), whose brother has been framed by the authorities, to Gus (Eakeley) and Sadie (Pulver), Polish immigrants crushed by the Mister family when Gus joins the union effort. On the other side are Mrs. Mister (Sally Ann Triplett), a brainless dilettante, and Junior and Sister Mister (Eddie Cooper and Mikula), rich spoiled brats. There are also mercenary Reverend Salvation (Eakeley), easily swayed Editor Daily (Barnett), unscrupulous Dr. Specialist (Cooper), and opportunistic artists Yasha (Lowe) and Dauber (Webb), all members of the Liberty Committee, Mr. Mister’s flunkies determined to bust any unionizing.
With the original company of 36 whittled down to 10, it’s inevitable that some cast members will be in over their heads. Triplett hasn’t nearly the range for Mrs. Mister’s songs and fails to project Blitzstein’s pointed lyrics (the natural, unmiked sound is a pleasure, but many words are lost); Pulver is an affecting Sadie (in an oddly staged scene—she and Gus, sharing sweets at a soda fountain, are for some reason 15 feet apart) but a colorless Moll; Webb, handed Ella’s “Joe Worker (Gets Gypped),” usually a show-stopper, turns it into a dirge. Yazbeck’s a fine Larry Foreman, but it’s not a star part—if ever there was an ensemble musical, this is it—and if you came to see him dance, you won’t get a step. Garrison, always a pro, conveys Mr. Mister’s ruthlessness and callousness, but most of his minions are so weakly inhabited, he hasn’t anything to play off of.
It’s a darn shame, because for a piece ripped from 82-year-old headlines, Cradle is appallingly current. Joe Workers still get gypped, the privileged class still teems with corrupt hypocrites, immigrants still get a raw deal, and who are Junior and Sister Mister but Eric and Ivanka? The Cradle Will Rock has survived dreadful stagings; it will survive this one, and astute observers may even recognize its genius in this rendering, despite Doyle’s hackery. But it’s a much better show than this.
The Cradle Will Rock runs through May 19 at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St., between Fourth and Third). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For information and tickets, call (212) 352-3101 or visit classicstage.org.