The Cradle Will Rock

From 10/03/2003 to 10/26/2003


One of the first pro-union musicals written in this country, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK is set in Steeltown, USA. Mr. Mister, the corporate magnate, has bought up (or paid off) every sector of the community. Through flashback and song, the piece illustrates how each of them sold out, with the exception of Larry Foreman, a union organizer who victoriously organizes the town against the corporation.


The reviews are in.

Review: Roll up your sleeves and clock in?for Frank Theatre’s weird and wonderful “The Cradle Will Rock”
By Liz Weir, www.Talkin?, October 2003

Fearless Wendy Knox, artistic director of Frank Theater, searches out plays thick with social and cultural issues and finds their hearts in often unconventional and powerful productions. Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 folk opera, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, is no exception.

Knox not only chose a rarely-performed period piece that is sledgehammer pro-union, but she stages CRADLE on a vast second floor section of the semi-derelict Sears building, a giant distribution facility that has stood empty for years. The setting lends itself to a show that waves the flag for the beleaguered working man. Set designer John Bueche blends the rough concrete walls, large WPA prints and selected clutter of industrial hardware, gathered from the building’s working life, to create a fitting atmosphere for the opera. Even the entrance, via a loading dock, the climb up bare steps and the echoing slam of an industrial fire door as you enter the performance space, add to the play’s resonance.

Blitzstein’s book, clever lyrics and Kurt Weill-like music tell of Steeltown USA, a town that is run by Mr. Mister, a steel-willed magnate, bent on amassing immense wealth from his steel mill at any cost. He buys and compromises the town’s self-satisfied middle-class citizens, is ruthlessly anti-union and arranges for agitators to perish in explosions or “fall” into ladles of molten steel. On this night, a big union drive is underway. An inept policeman hauls Mr. Mister’s conservative, anti-union Liberty Committee into night court, mistaking them for union agitators. Also in night court is Moll, a starving prostitute, but as each Liberty Committee member is booked and his corrupt ties to Mr. Mister are revealed in flashback, it becomes clear that they are just as guilty of selling themselves as she is.

Blitzstein wrote his characters as types – caricatures that are so black and white, they could step from the pages of a comic strip. Knox runs with this idea and directs CRADLE in a style of arch surrealism. Movements are styled and exaggerated, and Kathy Kohl’s wonderfully bizarre costumes wildly inflate each bad character’s type, so that fawning university president Prexy (Jonathan Peterson) wears the baggy pants of a clown and has a fuzzy tuft of ginger hair rising from his bald pate, and sexually manipulative Mrs. Mister dresses in glittery, knock-you-off-the-catwalk fashion and doesn’t wear the same outfit twice. Only sympathetic characters, most of them dirt poor, are dressed in clothes with? which you might identify.

Knox opens CRADLE with theatrical panache. On a dimly lit space, you hear an off-stage cascade of dropped metal rods, the grind of heavy machinery that sounds like a panting monster, and raised voices, talking of a strike. The motley group of the Liberty Committee, moving in weirdly gestured motion, spills on stage from between the audience seating, which lines two sides of the space. It’s a surreal start, and all that follows is just as weird and compelling.

A cast of 18 sings and acts the folk opera’s 26 roles, and Knox has put together a remarkable ensemble of performers. Six of the male roles are played by women, and Maria Asp has great fun with this gender bending. She plays a Cop and pushes male mannerisms to amusing limits; she swaggers, chest and belly pushed out, and scratches her crotch with her nightstick. Asp also plays the shady thug Bugs, then, with versatility, switches to become earnest Ella Hammer, the wife of the worker who “fell” into the ladle. Vera Mariner entertains as the weak Reverend Salvation, and Maren Ward relishes her role as macho Professor Trixie.

Knox pulls strong performances from all members of her cast, too many to acknowledge individually. Outstanding among them is Ruth Mackenzie as Moll. Her songs, sung in a voice of rich warmth, are meltingly sad. Gary Keast plays Dick, another cop, as a true dick, and his Larry Foreman is all wholesome charisma, the noble working man straight out of social realism. Molly Sue McDonald fills Mrs. Mister with wicked flair, and Alan Sorenson convinces as the cigar-chomping baddie, Mr. Mister.

Natalie Hart has choreographed a hilarious campy duet between artist Dauber (Eric Sumangil) and concert performer Yasha (Patrick Bailey.) Marya Hart leads the five-member onstage music ensemble, and Michael Kittel improvises strong creative lighting in a difficult space.

As a people’s opera, CRADLE has particular resonance in a time of strong anti-unionism and corporate malfeasance. Knox’s playful yet fervent production held me fascinated throughout its intermissionless, one hour, 40 minute length. So, pull on those work boots and go.

Review: Knox styles ‘Cradle’ into vaudeville
Graydon Royce, Star Tribune,, Published October 7, 2003

Director Wendy Knox knows what she has on her hands with “The Cradle Will Rock,” Mark Blitzstein’s 1937 leftist operetta: to wit, an inert museum piece whose only potential lies in performance. Knox responds with a Brechtian burlesque in a production that embraces Blitzstein’s caricatures and corks up the satire.

“Cradle” presents the politics of the working masses in the Great Depression with a jaundiced view of establishment America. Blitzstein indicts organized religion, the press, the academy and the medical profession as whores to big business.

The set-up — it’s not really a plot — has Moll, a prostitute, cooling her heels in the same lock-up as the Liberty Committee, symbolic representatives of the institutions, who were arrested for being too close to a union rally. As the bailiff calls their names, they step up and sing or act through short vignettes that detail their complicity with the robber baron Mr. Mister.

Knox has staged this vaudeville with urbane industrialism in the old Sears Building in south Minneapolis. The rasp of Blitzstein’s working-class universe is palpable amid the cinder-block walls and mottled gray concrete. Set designer John Bueche reinforces this funky atmosphere with scaffolding, utilitarian junk and large black-and-white drawings of steelworkers by Trish Tripp. The space forces Michael Kittel’s lighting design toward the dark, shadowy end, with occasional harsh spotlights.

Kathy Kohl’s costumes, on the other hand, reflect the oversized, garish vision Knox goes for in the performances — a wink and a nod to surrealism.

The dichotomy between gritty factory and over-the-top theatricality runs through the show. Ruth MacKenzie portrays Moll with vulnerable yet feisty decency, but the figurative prostitutes on the Liberty Committee act as though they were in a Harlequin pantomime. Molly Sue McDonald’s cultured voice expresses raw ambition as Mrs. Mister. Gary Briggle exudes an oily smugness as an editor who plays both sides off each other. Maren Ward blows the top off her brief cameo as a testosterone-laced university professor and newcomer Alex Morf similarly tears it up as Junior Mister.

In the pivotal role of Mr. Mister, Alan Sorenson plays both sides of the fence, mixing caricature and internalized realism. He projects a sly image full of pomposity, false strength and cunning.

Marya Hart’s musical direction is crisp and her band skilled. A few voices are especially noteworthy — McDonald’s, MacKenzie’s and Briggle’s — but this staging is more about personality than virtuosity. Good for that!

REVIEW: ‘Cradle’ captures tensions of today
BY DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA,Pioneer Press, October 26 2003,

It’s hard to imagine that Frank Theatre could have found a better spot than the old Sears building on Lake Street for its production of “The Cradle Will Rock.” Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Frank Theatre creating a staging of the staunchly pro-union Depression-era musical that could be any more thrilling.

The space is at once historically apt and crushingly contemporary. Originally constructed in the late 1920s, the building ? now mostly vacant ? is a rough contemporary of the show, which tells the story of an evil steel magnate named Mr. Mister, who buys up everyone and everything in his path until a union organizer named Larry Forman stands up to him. Those who might dismiss the script as a leftist relic of history might be interested to know that the very space in which Frank performs was leased briefly by those poster boys for corporate badness ? Enron.

And the show? Well, it’s agitprop, pure and simple, including a ballad that starts out “Joe Worker gets gypped” and a heart-thumping call to action at the end that makes you want to run out and grab a picket sign.

Director Wendy Knox realizes this, and so she elects to stage the show as a burlesque, complete with cartoony sets, oversize props and bad guys who play their roles with Brechtian broadness.

Mr. Mister (played with a growl and a malevolent glimmer by Alan Sorenson, in a wickedly grand performance) chomps on an oversize cigar. In his straw hat and severe makeup, Gary Briggle (who is strong of voice and solid in his character’s punctilious spinelessness), the actor who plays Editor Daily, looks like he might have fallen off an old New Yorker cover.

The good guys are played with more earnest realism, from Gary Keast’s brash-but-almost hypnotic Larry Foreman to Blayn Lemke’s drunken and heartbroken Harry Druggist to Ruth Mackenzie’s naive-yet-world-weary Moll, whose prostitution of herself pales in comparison to most of the others on stage.

The musical is essentially a recitation of how all the prominent professionals in town have sold out to Mr. Mister, and so has the potential to be static. But Knox and her company pump electricity into just about every scene. Without explicitly saying so ? simply by playing the material with spirit and edge ? director and cast make this play from more than a half-century ago feel urgently contemporary.

You don’t believe me? Ask the group of unionized (and poised to strike) University of Minnesota clerical workers who attended this weekend and actually hissed Jonathan Peterson, playing a weak-kneed college president.

The 18-member cast is excellent, with superior performances from all the leading actors mentioned above. But there are memorable little gems of performances in some of the smaller roles ? from Patrick Bailey’s snivelingly unctuous turn as a violinist named Yasha to Maren Ward’s butch endorsement of military training to Alex Morf’s pouting, dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks portrayal of Mr. Mister’s useless and indulged son.

Though the show clearly wears both its politics and its idealism on its sleeve, the material clearly has an audience in days when labor strife has been in the news. On a Sunday afternoon when the Twins and the Vikings were playing, the place was sold out. Ushers were giving out blankets for the extra patrons who offered to sit on the concrete floor of the drafty second-floor cinder-block box that Frank is calling home for this production.

The show earns that kind of die-hard admiration. It’s a huge show for a small company like Frank. And it’s a huge success.

Review: The Cradle Will Rock and Urinetown, On the Purple Circuit

by Steven LaVigne. Lavender, Winter 2003 Issue

Using the musical theatre to make social commentaries is a natural collaboration, so why is it not done more frequently?? The origin of this type of musical theatre probably was born in Germany with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. That show, political commentary on life in the Weimar Republic during the late 1920s. Composer Marc Blitzstein adapted the musical for the English-speaking theatre, and following the death of his wife, wrote The Cradle Will Rock, a musical about Union busting. The story of the show’s original production is legendary, and for that, see Tim Robbins’ film version. I’ve waited 30 years to see this show, and Frank Theatre is staging a jim-dandy production in the warehouse of the old Sears building in south Minneapolis.

Director Wendy Knox has assembled a fine cast of both Equity and non-Equity actors to tell the story of life in Steeltown, USA. Set in the depression,  Moll, a part-time employee of Mr. Mister, is arrested for soliciting on the night of a Union rally at the steel mill. She and Harry Druggist, arrested for vagrancy, observe the as Mr. Mister’s Liberty Committee of Union busters, develop the story of their boss’ corrupt activities to keep the Unions from taking over his industry. The town’s newspaper, medical, religious and educational professionals all serve the man, making him rich and his workers poor. Moll even tells a story of finding a nickel under her foot in a restaurant, only to discover that it’s a wad of gum.

The Cradle Will Rock is a musical that packs quite a wallop, and Frank Theatre has spared nothing to breathe life into this exciting material. By using the creaking remains of this empty building, John Bueche has designed an original and creative set, while Marya Hart’s musical direction keeps Blitzstein’s Weill-inspired melodies moving during the show’s100 minute running time.

While the ensemble is superb, Ruth MacKenzie’s Moll, Alan Sorenson’s Mr. Mister, Molly Sue McDonald’s Mrs. Mister, Gary Briggle’s Editor Daily, Vera Mariner’s Reverend Salvation, Gary Keast’s Larry Foreman and Blayn Lemke’s Harry Druggist deliver knockout performances.

Frank Theatre’s outstanding production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock is not to be missed! It continues through the month of October at the Sears Building. See theFrank Theatres website for more information.

DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA: These 10 superb plays made theatergoing a pleasure

Theater has the power to move, to cajole, to effect. But best of all, it has the power to surprise, an ability to confound expectations, to jam our intellectual and emotional radar, to zag when we’re positive a zig is coming.

And, after lots of years and a thousand or more plays, I still find myself surprised at the theater. Sometimes, it’s a downer: a performance not measuring up to my hopes, a favorite title treated roughly or stupidly, a company or a cast coasting on previous successes.

But frequently, the surprise is a good one: a new performer who beguiles and glistens with promise, a fresh look at a play or a playwright, new discoveries about audiences and the power a terrific performance can have over them.

That surprise, or the promise of it, anyway, is both a thrill and an addiction. A theatergoer’s life is a life in which you almost always go to bed knowing something you didn’t know when you woke up that morning. Who could ask for more?

And so, for this year’s compilation of the Top 10 Plays, I decided to review the year in the theater with an eye toward finding those good surprises. They happened in large theaters and small ones, in the city and in the suburbs, in classical text and contemporary scripts.

Auld lang syne, everybody, and may 2004 bring us all more surprises.

1. “The Cradle Will Rock,” Frank Theatre

There wasn’t a more perfect convergence of script, venue and current events this year than the one that occurred in Wendy Knox’s staging of this staunchly pro-union musical from the 1930s. Knox moved her scrappy, itinerant company into a space in the looming, industrial-bleak Sears Building on Lake Street.

Using a combination of design and found objects, Frank turned the space ? which had once been leased to Enron ? into a theater for a few weeks. By opening weekend, the newspapers were filled with reports about a clerical workers’ union at the University of Minnesota poised to strike.

The place and the times helped give the piece a jolt of contemporary electricity and represented the final bit of juice in Knox’s megawatt production. Cartoony and broad in a way that would have made Brecht proud, “The Cradle Will Rock” was bold and bracing, the kind of fearless jump-off-a-cliff that made actors and audience alike thrum with aliveness.