On the face of it, the Liberty Committee in Marc Blitzstein's musical The Cradle Will Rock sounds pretty innocuous. Who's against liberty, right? But with a twisting of words similar to today's hard-right groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth, you might want to think twice about what the Liberty Committee stands for.
In mythical Steeltown, U.S.A., the Liberty Committee is a really a gaggle of puppets who have been cowed by Mr. Mister, the factory owner who is the town's de facto boss. To save their own hides, they preach his anti-union message.
University Theatre's revival of this 1937 musical opened last night in Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre (it runs through Dec. 8). The show debuted under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project, part of the Works Progress Administration, with no less a director than Orson Welles. However, it immediately ran into controversy due to the tense politics of the times.
For audiences in 2012, Blitzstein's tale retains its relevance yet with a bit less urgency. These characters, in their 1930s clothes (wonderfully costumed by Sarah Woodworth), are no longer our contemporaries. While Wisconsin has obviously seen recent, prolonged battles over collective bargaining, The Cradle Will Rock resonates more on a historical level than as a literal comment on the present day. In a way, it tells us how we got here.
The show begins with Moll, a tired and desperate prostitute (Morgan Boland, who possesses a terrific singing voice). Snared for soliciting, Moll winds up in night court, where she meets a druggist-turned-vagrant (Joe Lullo) who lost his shop thanks to the sinister Mr. Mister. The vagrant tells Moll she's no more a prostitute than the rest of the people in Steeltown, who have sold themselves out to Mr. Mister in various ways.
Though Steeltown's residents may not be true believers in the anti-union cause, they align themselves with Mr. Mister out of self-interest, from the artists who need the patronage of his wife, Mrs. Mister, to major social institutions like the press and church.
Characters here are archetypes with names like Rev. Salvation, Editor Daily and Dr. Specialist. While that might sound odd and didactic, it works in this context; Steeltown isn't a literal place but any American city. (If you saw University Theatre's 2007 production of Urinetown, it's hard not to notice similarities, from the social message to character names, like Officer Lockstock.)
A contemporary of Bertolt Brecht, Blitzstein was encouraged by the famed German playwright to turn his sketch about a young prostitute into a full-length work. In a nod to Brecht and like-minded writers, director Norma Saldivar uses elements that draw attention to the artificiality of theater: Some audience members are seated on stage, the band is fully visible, and scene changes are announced.
While I enjoyed Urinetown's cheeky, parodic treatment of similar material more, there is plenty to like about The Cradle Will Rock. Standouts among the solid ensemble cast include not only Boland and Lullo but Natalie Perry, whose voice is exquisite as she sings a duet with George Abbott (the two play a Polish factory worker and his pregnant wife).
My favorite numbers were a pair by the painter and musician who depend on Mrs. Mister, even as they ridicule her lack of cultural knowledge (Haley Kosup-Kennedy plays Dauber the painter and Eva Nimmer plays Yasha the musician). Dauber hoots about how Mrs. Mister asked her to bring the legendary painter El Greco -- who has been dead since the 17th century -- to tea. With fine voices and sprightly choreography by Maureen Janson, Dauber and Yasha are pure fun to watch.
I don't know if The Cradle Will Rock will inspire any political conversions, but it intrigues and entertains as a historical artifact of the Federal Theatre Project, political foreshadowing of our own time, and a chance for a large cast composed mainly of UW students to strut their stuff.