Review: “The Cradle Will Rock” at Nashville Opera

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When Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock premiered in 1937, the original production was shuttered before it could open.  With its blunt-force plot that villainized the haute bourgeoisie and the ease with which their allegiance could be bought by the wealthy, this work was inflammatory to say the least.  As presented by the Nashville Opera in a semi-staged format at the Noah Liff Opera Center, Blitzstein’s work remains as important in 2019 as it was 82 years earlier.

As someone whose history is inextricably linked to the steel industry and with my roots in Western Pennsylvania, The Cradle Will Rock feels elemental to my very DNA.  I’ve stood on the shores of the Monongahela River where Andrew Carnegie’s hired Pinkertons landed at Homestead to break the 1892 Strike.  Further down river, I have read the plaque at the feet of the 15-foot-tall statue tribute to the mythic Joe Magarac as he stands guard outside U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Works at Braddock, PA.

To call this opera an allegory would be to fudge the truth.  An allegory at least generally attempts to hide its meaning behind storytelling.  Even in its characters’ names, Cradle is very clear who people are and where they stand.  Either you’re in power, in the pocket of the powerful, under the thumb of power, or being brutalized by them.  If anything, Cradle is a new-aged morality play, a pageant of rights, wrongs, and choices.

Here in Steeltown, USA, it seems everyone has a price.  As Mr. Mister, the creature whose nearest approximation would be a double shot of Mammon mixed with Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick chasers, Galen Fott is hardly the only enemy of good.  He may be the one with the deepest pockets, but he, perhaps more than anyone else, sees into the souls of the town’s citizens and is able to bend them to his will.  With eyebrows and a mustache reminiscent of J.P. Morgan, his motivation is straightforward: total control by the power of his checkbook.

The Cradle Will Rock playbill from the Nashville Opera 2019-20 Season

As the Lady to his Macbeth, Mrs. Mister provides the grease beneath the wheels.  She knows where to diplomatically spread funds and purchase power.  Martha Wilkinson is delightfully knowing and laughably vile, a one-woman propaganda minister who, frankly, would thrive in the current White House.

Standouts among Steeltown’s so-called “Liberty Committee” – Mr. Mister’s personal tribe of bought gangbusters – are a powerful Patrick Thomas as Editor Daily, an impressive Brent Hetherington as Reverend Salvation, and Luke Harnish, whose hilarious Professor Trixie could have walked forth from any of a number of television beer commercials to crush an empty can on his forehead.

Megan Murphy Chambers as Moll, a sex worker attempting to survive in Steeltown, is a tragic observer to this parade of sold-souls.  Yet she is as trapped beneath the thumb of the patricians as those who look down upon her from the across the night court cell.  What adds more layers to Ms. Chambers’ presentation of Moll is that, while a knowing victim of the powers that be, she employs a sweet feminine naïveté that looks like it belongs to the girl next door in any classic period film.  This dualism is both shocking and incredibly effective.

Yet the second act belongs mainly to Eric Pasto-Crosby as Larry Foreman, the union hero.  This man is the foundation upon which Steeltown, USA grows.  He stands as Marx’s theories of labor and alienation made flesh.  Battered by the police and still wearing his denim overalls, Foreman is the stand-in for decades if not centuries of working men whose value was determined by their output.  Pasto-Crosby’s presence scares Mr. Mister and the Liberty Committee to their very cores.

This performance was my first encounter with Nashville Opera’s work.  Before we began, John Hoomes, CEO and Artistic Director of the Opera, emphasized that the cast was local talent.  If The Cradle Will Rock is any indication of the quality of Nashville Opera’s work, I’d be sure to add their 2019-20 season to your radar.

Next season kicks off with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on October 10 and 12 at TPAC.  At Christmas, Giancarlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors will be staged December 13-15 at the Noah Liff Opera Center.  Up next, Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw takes the Liff Center stage January 24-26.  Finally, on April 9 and 11, Verdi’s Rigoletto will close the 19-20 season at TPAC.  You can find out more information regarding dates, tickets, and performances at Nashville Opera’s website.

Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock performs Saturday, May 11th, at 8 p.m. and again on Sunday, May 12th, at 4 p.m. at the Noah Liff Opera Center, 3622 Redmon Street.  Parking is tight, to say the least, but they offer complimentary valet parking.  However, allow extra time!