September 15, 2005

Steeltown Rock

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The Schwartz Center production of Marc Blitzstein’s Depression-era musical, The Cradle Will Rock opens with a bit of history. The subject of this introduction? Another opening that happened over 68 years ago.

“I have yet to enjoy The Cradle Will Rock with all its trimmings,” recalled Blitzstein, whose recorded voice drifts across the darkened house before the show’s start. The musical’s original 1937 debut was almost entirely abandoned due to indirect attempts from the federal government to halt the production. Unafraid to tackle timely, controversial issues head-on, Blitzstein’s musical was characterized by Orson Welles, the director of the first production, as “hot stuff.”

Unfazed by seemingly unmanageable setbacks such as the lack of a theatre or an actor union that forbade the cast to perform onstage, the intrepid director along with the producer and Blitzstein led the entire show (including the audience) to a new location. Blitzstein recalled that Welles had declared, “We will have our premiere tonight!” With the cast improvising scenes throughout the replacement theatre, careful to avoid the stage from which they had been evicted, and a simplistic set, The Cradle Will Rock enjoyed an electrifying opening night worthy of its equally thrilling subject manner.

The first musical to appear in the Kiplinger Theatre, The Cradle Will Rock is an ensemble show that pulsates with energy and passion. Its story begins in Steeltown, USA, where Moll, a prostitute has just been arrested along with several men suspected of being union organizers. While in night court, Moll (Meredith Carman, ’06) meets Harry Druggist (Martin Hillier), who explains to her that the men brought in with her were actually members of “The Liberty Committee,” a group of distinguished citizens all loyal to the true boss of Steeltown, Mister Mister (Tom Demenkoff). Composed of a reverend, a newspaper editor, a college president, two professors, a violinist, an artist and a doctor, the Liberty Committee stands as a true sign of how far corruption as spread in Steeltown. As each scene unfolds, Druggist introduces Moll and the audience to the story of each individual Liberty Committee member but at the same time, reveals his own sad dealings with Mister Mister and the sacrifices such an association had cost him.

Described by director David Feldshuh, who is also the artistic director of the Schwartz Center, as “a wonderful mix of hilarious satire, fiery protest and robust characters,” The Cradle Will Rock engages the audience throughout its duration and never lets go. A provocative and complete universe is carefully constructed from the first, pure note that Carman, as Moll, sings all the way to the powerful closing number that employs a melange of different voices. What lies in between is a clear message spotlighting the indelible nature of the human spirit and its struggles against an impossible enemy in the form of a suffocating, unfair environment.

Expect no dripping, saccharin fare here because The Cradle Will Rock is filled entirely to the brim with substance that can still resonate with modern audiences. Said Feldshuh, “Labor unions and problems of workers are very much in evidence today nationally, internationally and right here in Ithaca – Each season we look for one or more plays that are not only theatrically exciting but also present issues that are important to contemporary, everyday life.”

The drama is evident onstage as we watch Mister Mister skillfully lure unassuming community members into his debt with a deadly combination of threats and platitudes. Demenkoff plays the ruthless steel tycoon as subtly devious and entirely without remorse; the devil in a pinstripe suit to say the least.

Flavored with many different types of musical numbers, The Cradle Will Rock cleverly pairs style with substance. The sultry strands of “Croon Spoon” as sung by Mister Mister’s daughter, aptly named Sister Mister (Kendy Gable ’06), are the vapid longings of a spoiled debutante while the taunt progression of “Joe Worker” sung by Ella Hammer (Jeannine D’Estries) after her brother has been framed for drinking on the job as a result of Mister Mister’s intervention is a testament to society’s oppression of the working man.

In addition to a collection of distinct solos, The Cradle Will Rock also includes a number of frenetic ensemble pieces bursting with energy and supplemented by sophisticated choreography that will make you long for the option of instant replay. A set deliberately designed to communicate the dreary, drab, blue-collar streets of Steeltown especially accentuates the colorful characters that often inhabit the stage.

Blitzstein’s musical spans a variety of moods in its music. For example, the brilliantly satiric “Reverend Salvation,” has two of the more flamboyant characters, the greedy Reverend Salvation (Brian D’Estries) and vapid Mrs. Mister (Carolyn Goelzer) carousing on stage through the ups and downs of the steel industry, all the while illustrating how easily principles can be abandoned when money enters the picture. Rounding out the already diverse cast is a chorus of steelworkers that add a full-bodied feel to the production.

Complex and driven by an engaging cast, Feldshuh’s rendition of Blitzstein’s classic musical presents a unique glimpse into a truly revolutionary part of American history. With the everyday worker as its star, The Cradle Will Rock highlights the plight of an oft-ignored social group. It is only fitting that the story’s progression culminates in a thundering climax that will shake you to the core.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang
Arts and Entertainment Editor