The Cradle Will Rock: Blank Theatre Company, 3/26/11

3 04 2011

Marc Blitzstein created a musical that paralleled real-life union struggles amidst the larger theme of metaphorical prostitution and selling out in The Cradle Will Rock, which, when banned from its theatre for its uncompromising leftist leanings in June 1937, made front-page news in its own time and inspired a popular political movie in ours.

– Geoffrey Block, The Cambridge Companion to the Musical

Most musical theater history texts offer up such an intriguing little blurb on The Cradle Will Rock. (Wait, you mean musicals can be political – and even banned from performance? Gasp!) Unfortunately, most texts discuss the historical event with little to nothing about the musical itself. Musical theater fans can tell you the context of the 1937 production, but very few have read the libretto or listened to the score – and even fewer have ever seen a production. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the work itself deserves some attention, in addition to its incredible historical context.

Enter Blank Theatre Company’s revival of The Cradle Will Rock. Daniel Henning first directed this musical in 1994, and he revisits the landmark piece with playful panache in the Blank’s 20th anniversary season. The Cradle Will Rock features some of LA’s best musical theater talent, who embrace the presentational, Brechtian text with contemporary verve.

After all, The Cradle Will Rock is far more relevant than we would like to admit: archetypal characters such as Mr. Mister, Dr. Specialist, Reverend Salvation, and Editor Daily have their undeniable counterparts in 21st century capitalist society. Although the show’s design places the musical in the 1930s, protest posters in the musical’s final moments – and the show’s logo – point up contemporary relevance by attacking Enron, Halliburton, Goldman Sachs, etc. Henning couldn’t have chosen a more fascinatingly disjunct location to perform this show: the Stella Adler Theatre is tucked away by Hollywood and Highland – one of the most touristy, consumer-driven districts in the city.

After the original 1937 production was banned, the producers “invited the cast to show up wherever Blitzstein was performing Cradle, and to rise from their seats in the audience to play their parts. Some conservative cast members bowed out, as did others afraid of losing their relief-work pay as their only means of support. But by and large few defected from the ranks” (John Bush Jones, Our Musicals Ourselves). One of LA’s most accomplished musical directors, David O takes on the role of Blitzstein in the Blank’s production: he introduces each scene and accompanies, exploiting the full dynamic range of the old upright piano. The bare simplicity of the production is truly staggering. Rather than relying on special effects and elaborate designs, The Cradle Will Rock thrives on the dynamic range and political possibilities of the collective. Actors move through the audience, their powerful, unamplified voices joining in song from all sides of the theater.

I saw both The Cradle Will Rock and The Mercy Seat on the same day. The juxtaposition was a provocative reminder of why I generally prefer musical theater: the dynamic range of a musical and the emphasis on ensemble. This is not to say that “straight plays” or “legitimate drama” can’t achieve a sense of musicality or a sense of ensemble. To be sure, there are countless playwrights with rhapsodic style, whose words are like music; their language can crescendo and diminuendo, overlap in poetic and playful ways. And many plays cultivate ensemble. But the American stage is still dominated by psychological realism, which tends to privilege “natural” conversation and self-enclosed individuals. I don’t generally want to go to the theater to see and hear something “real.” I want to see something imaginary with a more metaphorical, open relationship to the “real.” Or maybe more accurately, I want to consider the possibility that the “imaginary” could one day be an alternative “real.”

Whether it’s obviously political like The Cradle Will Rock or “pure, fluffy entertainment” like a Golden Age hit musical, the musical’s anti-realist imaginary – often placing an emphasis on dynamic range and ensemble – is important and political in its own right. In fact, I left the Stella Adler Theatre that afternoon basking in the glow of an entertaining and political show that had drawn together an alternative theater-going community … in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard.


Glory Days: Bella Vita Entertainment, 3/24/11

3 04 2011

Glory Days is legendary among contemporary musical theater fans. With book by James Gardiner, music and lyrics by Nick Blaemire, this youthful musical received rave reviews in its initial run at Signature Theatre, transferred to Broadway in 2008, and promptly opened and closed in a single night. What happened between Virginia and NYC? Bella Vita Entertainment offers an endearing, talented production that gives fans of flops the opportunities to see just where Glory Days went wrong – or perhaps more accurately, where the Broadway producers went wrong.

In short, Glory Days does not fill a Broadway house – but it practically soars in a 99-seat theater like LA’s Lillian Theatre. After a year apart at college, four high school friends reunite on their hometown football field. Will, Andy, Jack, and Skip were always the outsiders at school, and now Will plots a prank to get revenge on the football bullies. Really, the prank is an excuse to create unity of time and space for these four guys to reflect on their high school years and what they’ve learned about themselves since being away. The book may be a little cliche, but the relationships and the songs are heartfelt. This musical offers something one doesn’t see often enough: four guys unabashedly sharing their love for one another – in song and dance.

Andy Hammer’s realistic football field and bleachers paired with Jeremy Pivnick’s flashy stadium lights immediately draw the audience back to their own high school days; marching band music even echoes in the background upon entering the theater. Director Calvin Remsberg offers a clean, crisp, and undeniably passionate production. The cast of this LA premiere (Alex Robert Holmes as Skip, Derek Klena as Will, Matthew Koehler as Andy, and Ian Littleworth as Jack) is vocally stunning, with beautiful rolling harmonies in ensemble numbers; a great deal of credit is due to talented musical director James May for these tight vocals. Unfortunately, sound design is less clear; there is a bothersome shift in sound between scenes and (over)amplified songs.

I have a theory that most musical theater fans were – or are – or will be – social misfits at some point in their life, kind of like the characters in this show. There is something abut the alterity of music and dance that draws us to the genre. What’s more, we have a strange affection for flops – those awkward, critically-panned Broadway misfits. We see all the strange promise and potential in shows like Candide or Anyone Can Whistle or Carrie. And against the economic odds, we stage full productions of these ostensible flops in the hope that audiences will finally see what we have always seen in the show. The flop wasn’t really a flop after all; the flop was just an anachronism, out of time and out of place, misunderstood.

Thanks to Bella Vita Entertainment, Glory Days is receiving such a beautiful, recuperative production in LA. Nick Blaemire and James Gardiner’s musical may never quite fit on Broadway, but it absolutely belongs in the genre of endearing, young chamber musicals with a rocking, heartfelt score to share.

The Human Voice: A Bunch of Artists Productions, 4/1/11

3 04 2011

The Human Voice: Review for EDGE Los Angeles