University Theater brought a controversial musical to life in its production of “The Cradle Will Rock,” written by Marc Blitzstein and directed by Norma Saldivar. The story is about how standing together creates a force too strong to bring down. Although the music was slightly strange — definitely nothing catchy, the performers sang with gusto.
Upon entering the theater, guests are told they are “welcome and encouraged to take a seat on the stage.” That is the first indication that “The Cradle Will Rock” is not your average musical. The show is based in Steeltown, USA, around a union uprising. Its unofficial mayor, Mr. Mister, played by the extremely talented Pete Bissen, controls the operations of the town. Mr. Bissen carries the show, both through his acting talent and through his character’s villainous nature.
Mr. Mister succeeds in buying out the soul of everyone that comes to be in his way. His wife pays the minister, Reverend Salvation, to manipulate the congregation. He buys the newspaper in order to control the flow of information to the citizens of Steeltown. Then he threatens Dr. Specialist into framing a union supporter as an alcoholic. The message seems to be everyone has a price — everyone, it seems, except the “lowlife” prostitute Moll, who has a price in other ways, and union organizer Larry Foreman.
Larry Foreman, played by Christopher Fechtelketter, is a leader in the growing union uprising and he believes this uprising is going to bring down Mr. Mister and his supporters from the Liberty Committee. Mr. Mister offers Mr. Foreman an undisclosed amount of money to disperse the protestors. It seems for a minute Foreman might be bought, but listening to innocent Moll’s cries and those of Harry Druggist, who sold his soul and son to Mr. Mister, Foreman refuses the money.
The musical ends with Foreman singing a song that includes a creepy verse from the children’s lullaby “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” “When the wind blows the cradle will rock,” he sings, giving some explanation for the play’s title. Foreman means when an uprising starts, it will disrupt the entire social order. Larry Foreman has the courage to stand up for what he believes in, not allowing his ideas to be bought. This proves to the rest of Steeltown if they stand together, they can be stronger than Mr. Mister ever imagined.
The musical ended up being shockingly relevant for being written in 1937, considering recent uprisings about unions and the Occupy Movement. With Wisconsin being a highly publicized battleground for the union debate, and Scott Walker eliminating the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions, this musical has more of a place in the 21st century than any of us would like to admit.
Although the musicality of the show was slightly odd, with no songs as appealing as those found in musicals like “Wicked” or “Grease,” the overall message of the play was stronger than the music. The actors performed shiningly and left the audience feeling inspired to stand together and fight for the plight of the underdog, whoever that underdog may be.
“Cradle Will Rock” plays Nov. 15 through Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. with matinees Nov. 18 and Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $23 and $16 for students and children. It will be performed in Mitchell Theatre.