Looking at the state of the US today, it’s hard to believe Marc Blitzstein’s rapier-sharp satire of hypocrisy, greed and corruption is over 80 years old. Its first staging by the brilliant 21-year-old Orson Welles is part of American theatre history. Banned by the powers that be and locked out of the venue, the cast – with Blitzstein himself volunteering to play piano – marched up Broadway to perform the work to a cheering crowd at Manhattan’s Venice Theatre.
Over the years, that ad hoc quirk of theatrical economics offered a tested and cheaper version, thus working against productions with full orchestra. This new release of a live performance at Opera Saratoga, therefore, turns out to be the work’s first complete recording.
Set in fictional Steeltown – the kind of ‘rotten borough’ Trump might go on to ‘swing’ in 2016 – The Cradle Will Rock is a tale of Unions versus Capital, taking its cue from the polemical dramas of Brecht – something of a literary hero for Blitzstein. When decent but broke ‘working girl’ Moll rejects the advances of a cop, she finds herself locked up along with the accidentally arrested town Liberty Committee, a group of pious hypocrites that includes a bent newspaperman (Editor Daily) and a corrupted clergyman (Reverend Salvation). As they wait to be sprung by sinister local bigwig Mr Mister, it’s only a matter of time before we learn who have really prostituted themselves, for what and for how much.
Blitzstein’s music is in the Kurt Weill vein with a touch of Bernstein (a close friend and colleague). It’s quirky, smart and catchy, and benefits from a gutsy performance under John Mauceri with his band of 24 – a line-up that like The Threepenny Opera includes saxophones, accordion and Hawaiian guitar. Songs like Nickel under the foot and Joe Worker still pack a punch.
The cast are all opera singers, but they work hard and act well. Most prove comfortable with the dialogue, though none can quite erase memories of Patti LuPone as the downtrodden Moll on the recording of John Houseman’s 1983 piano-only staging for The Acting Company.
Ginger Costa-Jackson makes a characterful Moll while Nina Spinner gives her all as the bereaved widow of a worker who has died in a neglectful workplace accident. The pompous local worthies are an often funny, yet inevitably creepy bunch, their swampy venality all too familiar from contemporary newsfeeds. And if the union foreman (Christopher Burchett) comes across as borderline psychotic, well maybe the piece isn’t as one-sided as you might think. Highly recommendable.