New York City Center Encores! premiered a musical last night about corruption, unionization, and corporate greed with a stellar cast including Danny Burstein, Raúl Esparza, and Anika Noni Rose.

Okay, let’s take a step back for a second and look at that sentence. In fact, let’s put on our grammar school hats (What? You didn’t own one?) and dissect it.

“New York City Center Encores!”:  We’re big fans of NYCC Encores! Program. We gushed about this year’s It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, Fiorello! and 2009’s On the Town. The Encores! program revisits long-forgotten material, even notoriously terrible shows, and makes them into real fantastic happy magic show times.

“premiered a musical last night about corruption, unionization, and corporate greed”: Unconventional, labor-orientated story lines just happens to be what this terrible haughty English major wrote her honors thesis on. Besides, what a rare thing on Broadway to have something like the normal lives of working class people dramatized on stage (cough Hands on a Hardbody cough). When you throw into the mix that The Cradle Will Rock was actually commissioned by The Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal WPA program to fund live performance around the country so as to employ artists and entertain families, well, this play is basically a semi-Marxist musical theatre lover’s dream!

“with a stellar cast including Danny Burstein, Raúl Esparza, and Anika Noni Rose”: Um, yes, yes, and yes. OKAYTHANKS.

Recipe for success, no?

Well, I found this show to be really unengaging. If I check my watch to see how much longer the show will be while Danny Burstein and Raul Esparza are singing, you know something’s not right. Here are some ideas of what went wrong:

1) Okay, so I know Jeanine Tesori (Artistic Director of the Encores! Summer Program) is supposed to be hot stuff right now. There’s lots of buzz going around about her musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s amazingly good graphic novel Fun Home. We caught a workshop at the Public and to be honest, itneedsalotmoreworkbeforeithappens. In the Playbill feature about her artistic director stint, Tesori says that she has kept with the Encores! tradition of quick rehearsal times for each show (Cradle only had 10 days) and did not have any pretenses about making the show seem like a finished product at all.  Which brings me to my next point:

2) This doesn’t look like a finished product at all. Even under short rehearsal periods, all of the aforementioned Encores! plays (and then some) had some kind of makeshift sets, costumes, choreography. Hell, Cradle hardly had any staging. All of the actors stood or sat perfectly still in their seats or by their microphones. Danny Burstein was fortunate enough to be able to walk around the stage and Raul Esparza got to flail his arms a bit. There was a little song-and-dance number by Martin Moran and Henry Stram, but it was hardly interesting.  All the performers dressed in concert performance outfits (tuxedoes and gowns) even though they were playing prostitutes, policemen, priests, newsreporters, etc. It’s hard to take Anika Noni Rose seriously when she sings about not being able to rub two dimes together looking like she’s gotta rush to the Academy Awards right after this. I mean, it’s not hard to dress people according to their career- high school kids do it every frickin year.

And are you telling me that an actor can’t pinch Anika Noni Rose’s arm when she yells, “OW YOU’RE PINCHING MY ARM.”  For real? You’re telling me that 10 days with a bunch of Broadway’s best and brightest only came up with “Hey, Let’s just read the script straight from our binders and just stand there for 80% of it.”

Judy Kuhn is a reporter, hear?

3) How does a show with

  • Raul Esparza aka Mr. Charisma/Sex Appeal
  • Anika Noni Rose aka Disney Princess
  • Danny Burstein aka Chameleon Boss
  • Matthew Saldivar aka Not Christian Borle but still awesome (Like if Borle had a baby with a deeper-voiced Esparza)
  • Judy Kuhn aka Disney Princess 2
  • Eisa Davis aka best Janelle Monae impersonator ever

be unengaging? It’s the total lack of energy from the lack of staging, costumes, and choreography. It’s also the fact that Cradle throws together a bunch of anecdotes in an attempt to make a storyline, but there really isn’t any. The play examines the greed and corruption of each member of the Liberty Committee, which has recently been arrested at a protest. The Liberty Committee is a group of the town’s most prominent professionals who do the bidding of Mister Mister (Burstein), a sort-of Andrew Carnegie fighting unionization and workers’ rights. Of course, the committee has been wrongly arrested…they were actually trying to stop the protest instead of participating in it. Each of the following scenes looks at how each member of the committee got involved in Mister Mister’s schemes. Anika Noni Rose plays a prostitute who was also wrongly arrested (for refusing a policeman’s advances), and she’s supposed to hold together the plot kind of sort of maybe nobody really knows. She’s got a song in the beginning and a song in the end and somehow that shows that she’s important.

The protest organizer (Esparza) shows up towards the end of the show to condemn us all to capitalist hell with some hair-tossing and jazzy tunes. And Mister Mister shows up every now and then to yell and shout and show that he’s a bad man.

It’s not a great show. But heck, Fiorello! is no masterpiece either. And It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane is AWFUL but Encores! knew how to present it in a self-referential, silly, and thoroughly enjoyable way.

With all its flaws, Cradle could have been fresh, energetic, and funny. Ten days of rehearsal with some brilliant talent can get you way more than a concert reading. Instead, the most exciting moment of the play was when Robert Petkoff forgot his lines and quite brilliantly played it off by having his character claim to have good memory later on in his dialogue. Good Times.