This show's history is more dramatic than its content
New York — The Cradle Will Rock. Music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein. Directed by John Houseman.
The first night of Marc Blitzstein's ''The Cradle Will Rock'' was Page 1 news in 1937, not so much for the strength of this ''opera of social significance,'' as it was called, but for the drama that surrounded getting the controversial work onto a stage.
''The Cradle Will Rock,'' which just ended a run at the American Place Theatre, is now on tour. It can be seen at the Ravinia Festival (near Chicago), today to June 12, and Saratoga, N.Y., June 17 to 26.
The production features alumni of the Acting Company, under the direction of John Houseman. In New York, Mr. Houseman would recount the history of the dramatic opening night: It proved to be the most exciting moment of the evening.
Mr. Houseman's story, in a nutshell, is that ''The Cradle Will Rock,'' his and Orson Welles's Federal Theatre production, was deemed inflammatory for its pro-union, pro-strike message. The government pulled every nasty string in the book to get the show shut down, including forcing the cooperation of the actors' and musicians' unions.
But it lost in an unprecedented show of spontaneous goodwill and genuine courage, wherein the actors risked their livelihoods to participate in the first night in a nonunion theater.
Unfortunately, the piece around which this incredible drama was built is cant and diatribe masquerading as message theater. Only Blitzstein's opera ''Regina'' - based on Lillian Hellman's ''The Little Foxes'' - has had any staying power, and that because he let his message speak in more universal terms and used his considerable gifts to create a score of some lasting distinction.
''Cradle'' is inferior Brecht-Weill style lacking the best of that team's universality and hard-driven impact. The rich (symbolized by a character named Mr. Mister) are vicious, and the downtrodden union folk are merely simple-minded. Today it is at best naive, often embarrassing, and one tires all too easily of this stageful of singing ciphers. Even as anachronism, ''The Cradle Will Rock'' is ultimately hard to like.
The cast exudes a lot of energy, not always well expended. Some of the singing - particularly from Patti Lupone and Michele-Denise Woods - is excellent. The rest of the singing is at best uneven. The stage is bare, but for the piano and a quantity of chairs. Mr. Houseman's direction is an attempt to re-create the flavor of ''Cradle's'' opening night. He keeps a tight rein on pacing, a somewhat laxer one on period characterization. Michael Barrett is the strong, exuberant pianist in the role Mr. Blitzstein himself performed, by dint of necessity, on that ballyhooed opening night.