A unique bit of 1930s theatrical nostalgia is being staged at Catholic University's Ward Recital Hall. The Benjamin T. Rome School of Music's production of "The Cradle Will Rock" is not just a performance of the propagandistic, populist opera by Marc Blitzstein, which was heavily inspired by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht; it is a reenactment of what happened on June 16, 1937, when "The Cradle Will Rock" had its premiere.
Intended for the WPA Federal Theater Project, the production was canceled the morning of its opening night, in what looked like an act of censorship. Essentially a morality tale about efforts to organize the workers in Steeltown, USA, where everything is owned by Mr. Mister, and the police, the churches, the press, the arts and the local university have all been corrupted by his money and power, the show often seems obvious, preachy and simple-minded today -- particularly when you notice characters with names like Rev. Salvation, Editor Daily and Dr. Specialist. Still, in a good performance it has moments of emotional power, lyric eloquence and wild humor. But in 1937, it may have seemed subversive. In any case, the show was closed down and the federal government put armed guards at every entrance to the theater.
Producer John Houseman and director Orson Welles scrambled frantically to get another venue, managed to rent the Venice Theatre and moved the performers and a capacity audience 20 blocks to the new location about an hour after the scheduled curtain time. Actually, there was no curtain. Ironically, the actors union had suddenly withdrawn its approval of the show, so members of the union were prohibited from "appearing on stage" in it. Undaunted, the players stayed in the audience, stepping forward to perform in front of the stage, without scenery, props or costumes, as the show proceeded.
The CU production shows it the way it happened, even using actors to portray Houseman (Ellwood Anaheim), Welles (Scott Fortier) and Blitzstein at the piano. It is a student production with a large cast and the quality of performances is variable (the most common problem is a failure to project words clearly), but those who are interested in this bit of theater history will find it an absorbing evening.
There are also some first-class performances. Theresa Cullen shows a wild comic talent as Mrs. Mister, and so does Katie Brader as her daughter, Sister Mister. Chris and Michael Roche do some cute singing and dancing as a musician and painter who have been corrupted; Chris Mangum has a commanding stage presence and considerable acting talent; and there were good performances by Chris Waelchli, Tammy Bednash and Lauren Duquette.
"The Cradle Will Rock" will be performed four times tomorrow through Sunday.