'The Cradle Will Rock' review: Wonderful cast, passionate production

From left, Henry Stram, Anika Noni Rose and From left, Henry Stram, Anika Noni Rose and Martin Moran in " The Cradle Will Rock" at the New York City Center in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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REVIEW

If Off-Center never does anything beyond its brief kickoff production of Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock," the new summer spinoff of City Center's Encore! series will have justified its existence.

There are two more offerings in the first season of the project, of course. This means two more chances to approach the bar set very high by this semi-staged concert revelation of Blitzstein's legendarily inflammatory and historically marginalized 1937 political "play in music."

Except for a few short revivals through the years, "Cradle" has been less known for Blitzstein's marvelous score and his surprisingly witty fist of a book than for the tabloid-ready premiere that went on after the government took back the Federal Theatre Project funds and padlocked the theater.

And unless some imaginative producer figures out a future for this still-polarizing landmark from a time of furiously engaged political theater, the wonderfully cast, passionate and simply presented production will close as scheduled Saturday night.

The story is a bold outline in 10 scenes, directed by Sam Gold with the expected Brechtian placards and a formally dressed cast in chairs onstage in front of conductor Chris Fenwick's excellent chamber orchestra. (But why 14 players instead of the original 32?)

The action mostly moves backward and forward from night court, where a group of anti-union bigwigs has been accidentally caught in a police sweep of a steel-union rally. Along the way, the cops also arrest a hooker (played with ravishing intelligence by Anika Noni Rose) and a homeless guy (the heart-aching Peter Friedman as the former druggist ruined by a government frame-up).

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All the fancy folk -- press, clergy, even the artists -- are beholden to the boss capitalist, Mr. Mister, played with a scowl and a fat suit by Danny Burstein. Raúl Esparza comes in toward the end to deliver the union hero's title song, Da'Vine Joy Randolph sings a lament about the murder of her steelworker husband, and an amazing boy named Aidan Gemme, cast as the druggist's son, also plays grown-ups without guile.

The score turns out to be a missing link between the distancing grip of Brecht / Weill and the sentimentality of Leonard Bernstein. The songs, driven by unsettling rhythms, play ironically and lusciously with popular tunes and dance forms. If the production seems a bit slick for the style, a devastating finale catapults us back to the real gritty business.

WHAT "The Cradle Will Rock"

WHERE New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., through Saturday

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INFO $25-$110; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org

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BOTTOM LINE New series rediscovers landmark musical.

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