Developed in the 1930s under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project and originally directed by Orson Welles, Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock" was a hymn to the working man and his struggle against Big Business. The show's fateful premiere in New York is notorious in the annals of American theater and is what most people remember about "Cradle," if they remember it at all. Which is a shame. Much of the notoriety is based on sentimental speculation.
Moreover, while "Cradle's" politics are indeed dated, its story still has something to say. Hollywood director Tim Robbins thinks so; his movie about the play's history comes out next month.
A tip of the hat, then, to American Century Theater for trying to resurrect the show, which opened last week. But ACT's production of "The Cradle Will Rock" isn't really about "The Cradle Will Rock." It's about something else, which, although related, isn't anywhere near as interesting or successful as the script.
Unlike other musical composers at the time, Blitzstein, heavily influenced by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, essentially tells an episodic allegory charged with leftie agitprop and set to near-atonal music. The proles of "Steeltown, USA" -- more or less owned by the evil millionaire Mr. Mister (Allen F. Reed) -- try to form a union. Mister, to put it mildly, is not happy and lets everyone know -- violently.
Even for the era, when industries were routinely employing the truncheon as a management tool, Blitzstein's politics had all the subtlety of a train wreck. But the passion that he invested in the 26 characters of "Cradle," and the soul-poisoning compromises he forced some of them to make, more than compensated for his otherwise heavy hand.
Most of the principal players -- Jacqueline Champlain Manger, Nelson Smith, Tony Simione, Robert Hall Jr., Kathryn Fuller and Reed -- are strong actors and singers, endowing their symbolic characters with some distinction. But most of the other actors are guilty of overacting and undersinging. Neither their characters nor their voices lodge in the mind or heart.
But this is not entirely the ensemble's fault. The production's main problem is director Jack Marshall's conceptual overlay, which upstages Blitzstein's story, and which the show's producers do not want revealed. Let's just say it only further obscures, not illuminates, "The Cradle Will Rock."
The Cradle Will Rock, by Marc Blitzstein. Directed by Jack Marshall. Musical director, Tom Fuller. Set by Michael deBlois; lighting, David Walden; costumes, Phyllis Malatesta; sound, Loren Platzman. Through Nov. 20 at American Century Theater. Call 703-553-8782.
CAPTION: Kerry DeMatteis, from left, Anita H. Miller and Jeffery L. Peterson in American Century Theater's revival of Marc Blitzstein's leftist musical "The Cradle Will Rock."