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.


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Interact, 3/21/10

30 03 2010

When Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was nominated for Best Musical in 2005, I was less-than-impressed with the Tony Award show performance.  Out of context, Freddy (even played by the wonderful, Tony Award-winning Norbert Leo Butz) came off as simply an annoying character, and the rap-like “Great Big Stuff” turned me off from the show.  Amazing how a single song can put a bad taste in your mouth; I hadn’t bought the cast recording and hadn’t bothered seeing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels when I visited NYC in fall 2006, just before it closed.

But everything deserves a full chance.  I decided to give Dirty Rotten Scoundrels an honest try with Interact Theatre Company’s recent production – and experienced a complete change of heart.  Note to self: never judge a musical by its Tony Award performance.  Winner of Best Musical in 2005, Spamalot‘s Tony medley showcased its best material; while the musical has its funny moments (usually when parodying other Broadway shows), I found Spamalot as a whole to be only mildly entertaining.  On the other hand, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels‘ “Great Big Stuff” turns out to be a wonderfully character-specific musical moment in the context of a hysterical throwback to classic musical comedy. (It has its deliciously dirty moments of parody too – with amusing nods to My Fair Lady.)  Interact’s playful production allowed Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek’s musical to shine in a new light for me.

On the French Riviera, experienced (i.e. old and debonair) con artist Lawrence Jameson falls in with aspiring (i.e. young and quirky) con artist Freddy.  Although ostensibly competing against one another, Lawrence and Freddy become a dynamic duo in swindling wealthy women out of their money – while sometimes being swindled themselves.  In the context of the musical, I still found Freddy a little annoying – but simultaneously endearing, especially when portrayed by the lovable Matt Wolpe.  Along with a dashing Chip Phillips as Lawrence and cute Kelly Lohman as Christine Colgate (the Soap Queen to be swindled), the leads provide an incredibly solid foundation for the show, offering strong vocals and excellent comedic timing.  Ensemble harmonies are sometimes a bit muddled and overpower the leads, but Freddy and Christine’s “Love Is Your Legs” – with soaring gospel solos and a backup choir – still sends the audience into fits of laughter.  The live band, led by music director Johanna Kent, does a particularly nice job striking a balance with singers.

Pulled back from the Broadway stage to the NoHo Arts Center, Deborah “Dove” Huntley’s set design provides a smaller-scale, lush setting that easily and clearly transforms from one locale to another. Richard Israel’s clean direction makes full use of the space – even the audience – and Tracy Powell’s choreography brightens up musical numbers, although her work is sometimes poorly executed by ensemble members; you will not see quite the precision dance one would expect of a Broadway production.

While still not one of my favorite musicals, Interact’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels nonetheless offers outstanding performances, a well-designed show, and a welcome revision of my previous opinion of this musical.  It may be time to purchase that cast recording!