United States Blitzstein, The Cradle Will Rock: Opera Saratoga Orchestra and Chorus / John Mauceri (conductor). Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Springs, 16.7.2017. (RP)
Moll – Ginger Costa-Jackson
Ella Hammer – Nina Spinner
Larry Foreman – Christopher Burchett
Mr. Mister – Matt Boehler
Mrs. Mister – Audrey Babcock
Reverend Salvation – Justin Hopkins
Harry Druggist – Keith Jameson
Junior Mister – Spencer Viator
Sister Mister – Heather Jones
Editor Daily – Brian Wallin
Yasha, The Violinist – John Tibbetts
Dauber, The Artist – Scott Purcell
Dr. Specialist – Jorgeandrés Camargo
President Prexy – Eric McConnell
Professor Mamie – Adam Bradley
Professor Scoot/Steve – Miles Herr
Prof. Trixie/Gus Polock – Michael Anderson
Sadie Polock/Reporter – Meghan Kasanders
Bugs/Gent – Andy Papas
Dick/Reporter – Efraín Solís
Cop – Dylan Elza
Director and Choreographer – Lawrence Edelson
Scenic Designer – Martin T. Lopez
Costume Designer – Anya Klepikov
Lighting Designer – Brandon Stirling Baker
Wig and Makeup Designer – Sondra Nottingham
During the Great Depression when Franklin D. Roosevelt was President of the United States of America, the Federal Theater Project (FTP) had the dual mission of presenting good theater nationally and job creation for theater professionals of all stripes. Harry Hopkins, one of the president’s closest advisors, provided the rationale for the agency. ‘I don’t know why I still hang on to the idea that unemployed actors get just as hungry as anybody else’. From its founding in 1935 until it was defunded by Congress four years later, the FTP, to the tune of around $40 million, made it possible for millions of Americans to experience live theatre for the first time.
Hopkins had promised that there would be no censorship and that the FTP’s mandate was to establish a free, adult, uncensored theatre’. That lasted until Congress got cold feet over the left-wing sentiments of some of the productions and defunded the agency in 1939. Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock has gone down in history as the opera that the US government tried to shut down. It wore its pro-union and anti-capitalism sentiments on its sleeve. The mood was tense in Washington in the spring of 1937 as labor demonstrations were turning violent. For politicians who thought that the FPA was little more than a front for communists and other subversives, federal funding of anti-establishment propaganda was just too much, and they pulled the plug on Blitzstein’s opera.
The company was locked out of the theater where The Cradle Will Rock was to premiere on June 16, 1937. Another was secured, but union rules prevented the actors from appearing on a commercial stage because technically they were government employees. Undaunted, Blitzstein sat at the piano in front of an empty stage and began to sing the opening song, when the actor playing Moll rose and joined him. The cast proceeded to perform the entire show from their seats for an audience that numbered in the hundreds. Orson Wells, who directed the production, later described their response as ‘that mighty, loving explosion that can be heard but once or twice in a theater lifetime’.
The setting is Steeltown, USA, 1937, where Mr. Mister owns the mill and runs the town. He had everyone who was anyone — men of the cloth, university officials and faculty, judges, artists, musicians, politicians, medical doctors, law enforcement and the press — in his pocket and serving on his Liberty Committee. Mrs. Mister was particularly adept at pointing out to people exactly on which side their bread was buttered. Their children led frivolous lives, with nary a serious thought crossing their minds. Working stiffs mattered to the extent they did their jobs, while labor union sympathizers and organizers were either bought off or exterminated.
Moll, a prostitute whose business is hurting, and Harry Druggist, who lives on the streets, serve as a Greek chorus. Harry Druggist is the most developed of the characters; his life went into a downward spiral when his son was the innocent victim of a bombing that also snuffed out the lives of Gus Polock and his wife Sadie. Gus’ problem, apart from being an immigrant, was his opportunism. He was willing to sit on the fence and see which way the chips would fall, but hedging his bets proved to be a fatal miscalculation. Moll, for her part, cannot see how the men who make up Liberty Committee are any different from her. They sell their souls and surrender their pride while she just rents out her body. Moll might even think that she has the better deal.
If you want to read who turned in an excellent performance, just go to the cast list. Each person on it created a vividly etched character through their voice and dramatic flare. If some left a greater impression, that’s only because they were on stage a bit longer. Ginger Costa-Jackson’s dusky-voiced Moll, Justin Hopkins preaching up a storm as Rev. Salvation, the forlorn, heart-broken Harry Druggist embodied by Keith Jameson, and the stunningly rich contralto of Nina Spinner as the defiant Ella Hammer were among them.
The opera ends with Larry Foreman predicting doom for the likes of Mr. Mister and leading the charge for the empowerment of the rising middle class. Christopher Burchett as the fearless union organizer defiantly hurled the cry that the cradle was rocking as the final notes sounded. He was magnificent and his passion inspiring.
Lawrence Edelson, the Saratoga Opera’s Artistic and General Director, directed and choreographed the production. He understands his little theater and how to show it off to its best advantage. The Cradle Will Rock is fast paced and a lot of action is packed into its 90 minutes. The Liberty Committee bowed to the will of Mr. and Mrs. Mister in scenes that ranged from gospel preaching to song and dance, all stitched together seamlessly. The poignant vignettes of the folks from the other side of the track were beautifully framed, providing the performers the time and space to give voice to their characters’ emotions. Edelson’s sympathies were clearly with Moll: in the final scene the Liberty Committee appear in the same lurid pink shoes that she wears, a symbol of their shared profession.
A series of red platforms and staircases served as street corner, drugstore, jail, courtroom and various other locales. Stark posters with antiunion messages and admonitions against vice served as the backdrop. Adequate space was provided for the orchestra, and conductor John Mauceri was positioned where he not only had a view of the action but could control dynamics. Everything was in balance, both visually and aurally.
Every production of The Cradle Will Rock carries the weight of that opening night on its shoulders, and most are staged simply with just piano accompaniment as it was first heard in 1937. Opera Saratoga presented Blitzstein’s full orchestration, not heard since 1960, which is heavy on woodwinds, including alto and tenor saxophones, an accordion, strummed instruments and a battery of percussion. It was a revelation, and for those who debate whether The Cradle Will Rock is a play with music or a musical as opposed to a real opera, hearing it as Blitzstein intended it to be heard settled that question. (It was recorded and will be released commercially.)
I saw the touring production of the 1983 Off Broadway revival in Youngstown, Ohio. I vividly recall the almost bare stage with an upright piano off to the side in a once magnificent movie palace. It was sparsely attended. Youngstown has been in the news a lot lately, one of those Rust Belt towns where the steel mills and factories closed long ago. That was my world, as I grew up just across the state line in Pennsylvania. My father was a steel worker, and almost every man I knew as a child either worked in a mill or a factory. None were foremen, all were union members. In the early 1980s unions were often disparaged, still are, but my father, born in 1911 never raised his voice when the topic came up. He would just quietly say, ‘They have never worked in a mill without one’.
It is the men that I knew as a child to whom Marc Blitzstein gave voice in The Cradle Will Rock. They would be amazed that 21st-century America mourns the passing of that era so, let alone their story being told in an opera house in Saratoga Springs.