The Cradle Will Rock
The greatest gift of the Great Depression was the Works Project Administration, to which we owe so much in the way of still-functioning infrastructure; by far, the WPA’s greatest gift was the work produced by the artists it employed. Murals, public art, concerts and the Federal Theatre Project all kept American artists from starving during the lean years and offered the rest of the country an opportunity to experience art.
The Cradle Will Rock, a 1937 musical by Marc Blitzstein, was the last work produced under the Federal Theater Project, and it had only one partial production due to the controversy surrounding its content. Directed by the legendary Orson Welles and produced by the great John Houseman, it was only seen as a full production a year later, when it was produced by their nascent Mercury Theatre.
Both an artistic work and as a historical document, The Cradle Will Rock certainly deserves the fine production it is getting at City Theatre, under the direction of Christine Nicholson. The story of “Steeltown, USA,” where everyone is held under the thumb of tycoon Mister Mister (Luther Hansen)—at least until they form a union—is set to the musical styles of the period, which means a little jazzy, a little croon-ish, a little silly and all requiring good pipes.
Fortunately, the cast is up to the task for the most part, with special nods to the vocal work of Nickii Arcado (as Moll), John Hancock (as Reverend Salvation) and Juan Ramos (as Editor Daily). A fantastic set, designed by Shawn Weinsheink, helps Nicholson keep the pace at a good clip by operating on multiple levels and with easily moved, period-suggesting pieces. In addition, the show features a fine five-piece live orchestra.
But the real treat is when Roderick Hickman (as Larry Foreman) takes the stage, invoking the spirit of the fed-up working people who wish to keep a fair share of what they produce. Hickman’s excellent voice and powerful presence is only heightened during the climax of the play, when he and Hansen go mano a mano and the sparks fly.
This fine staging of a little-known work is an excellent example of the power of art: Almost 80 years after its first production, we once again have jobs disappearing, people losing their homes and a widening income inequality. It’s important to be reminded that when the wind blows—well, you know.