If the performance of Marc Blitzstein’s “The Cradle Will Rock” by the “Encores! Off-Center” series, which just ended its all-too-brief five-performance run July 13 at New York City Center, is not recorded for posterity, it will be a major loss. To call it revelatory is an understatement. This searing, hilarious and deeply affecting production resurrected a show that had been regarded as a famous but historical agitprop curio from the depths of the Depression.
The all-star, multi-talented cast exposed the rich theatricality of Blitzstein’s 1937 attack on the evils of unrestrained capitalism. This semi-staged version, choreographed by Chase Brock, directed by Sam Gold and conducted by Chris Fenwick, had no need of sets to turn the work into a relevant and vital powerhouse in its swift 90-minute arc.
The now-legendary premiere of this work in 1937, recounted in Tim Robbins’s 1999 film of the same name, had to dispense with sets too. It was directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman for the Federal Theater Project of the WPA. However, causing alarm because of its politics, the production was cancelled before it could open. Uncowed, the cast walked to another theater and put the show on anyway, with the composer playing the piano and the actors performing their parts from seats in the audience — defying yet honoring the injunction forbidding them to appear onstage. Largely because of this show, Congress later killed the whole federal program.