Nashville Opera‘s sold out, sadly all-too-limited May 10-12 engagement of Marc Blitzstein‘s “The Cradle Will Rock” was a powerful and poignant reminder that live performance is ultimately a creation of the present and not the past no matter when the work was written and first produced – and that the fight for social and economic justice is a perpetual struggle.
Blitzstein’s 1937 proletarian “play with music” has often been explored by scholars, journalists, theater aficionados and others more for the fascinating story of how the US government attempted to censor it than for the work itself. That story even became the basis for a 1999 film written and directed by Tim Robbins. But the work is thought-provoking and entertaining, deserving the many revivals it’s had over the years.
Why should an opera company do a work like “The Cradle Will Rock”? As I’ve said and written on many occasions, despite some points on which they differ, opera is essentially theater, so I’ve no qualms with opera companies tackling works that are outside their traditional production domains. And one of the things I love about director John Hoomes – and I mean love! – is that he’s never artistically timid or complacent. An artist shouldn’t be those things, but for more than one reason we can all cite examples where those dubious qualities have been present in arts programming or performance.
The three SRO performances were well received by Music City audiences and critics (if you haven’t already read these reviews please click here, and here, and here). Feedback from public and private assessments as well as my own take after attending the May 11 show followed two main themes – the story-line is just as relevant (perhaps more so) to the tumult of today as it was 82 years ago, and the ensemble Hoomes assembled were perfect for the parts they played.
The first member of that terrific locally-based ensemble we saw and heard is one of Nashville’s finest actor-singers, mezzo-soprano Megan Murphy Chambers, as the down-on-her-luck character The Moll. In 1930’s slang that could either mean a prostitute – a “streetwalker” as the play program refers to her – or a gangster’s girlfriend (for other archaic terms in “Cradle” Nashville Opera was kind enough to supply this insert in their program). As she beautifully sang the first notes of “Moll’s Song (I’m Checkin’ Home Now)” the healing balm of her splendid voice, coupled with her usual impeccable timing and choices, provided a poignant look at a woman who’s hit – and been hit by – hard times.
In the play appropriately named characters in the fictional city of Steeltown, USA, often mix satirical humor with their proletarian polemics – one great instance occurs when the vagrant Harry Druggist (a wonderfully touching portrayal from actor and baritone Shawn Knight) ruefully recalled the mutually advantageous relationship of “Mrs. Mister and Reverend Salvation” (one of Music City’s leading lights, actor/soprano and Chaffin’s Barn Theatre Artistic Director Martha Wilkinson, in a shining Nashville Opera debut, and the very talented 2019 Mary Ragland Emerging Artist baritone Brent Hetherington).
Another was when actor/baritone Chris Simonsen (his debut with the company) and actor/soprano Jenny Norris brilliantly performed the hilarious “Croon Spoon” as the rich young wastrel siblings Junior Mister and Sister Mister. And their contributions to “Honolulu” were fun, too.
The father of these two profligates is town boss Mr. Mister, played with menacing Stalin-esque eyebrows and great intensity by veteran actor/baritone/artistic polymath Galen Fott in his Nashville Opera debut. His Machiavellian machinations were chilling to watch, and his performances in “The Freedom of the Press” with superb fellow actor and tenor Patrick Thomas as his media mouthpiece Editor Daily Gent and beyond were reminders of Fott’s great versatility.
Playing Blitzstein’s mouthpiece was the always-welcome presence of actor/baritone/stage combat artist extraordinaire Eric D. Pasto-Crosby as Larry Foreman. It’s down to Foreman (and the actor that plays him) to make the composer’s demands for a more equitable society dramatically palatable, and not surprisingly Pasto-Crosby did that well. Among his many credits in the Music City Nashville Opera patrons may recall his sterling work in 2012’s “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” – let’s hope for more onstage appearances at the Noah Liff Opera Center from him!
Engagingly providing humorous and lyrical commentary on “The Rich” and the artists that need their support were 2019 Mary Ragland Emerging Artist Darius Thomas (Dauber, the Artist) and actor/baritone Scott Rice (Yasha, the Violinist). The brilliant character actor and baritone Brian Russell (Dr. Specialist, like Pasto-Crosby also in “Field”) and the deliciously dynamic and profoundly entertaining actor/mezzo-soprano Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva (President Prexy) were also strong presences in this dream cast.
Mezzo-soprano Brooke Leigh Davis (what a moving “Doctor and Ella” from her as Ella Hammer), soprano Jesse Neilson (Sadie Polock, Reporter), baritone Luke Harnish (Professor Trixie, Gus Polock), baritone Eddie Charlton (Professor Mamie, Bugs) and lyric baritone Jairus Maples (Dick, Steve, Professor Scoot) also provided indelible contributions. Rounding out this appropriately assured cast were performers Mark Filosa (Cop) and Brian Best (Clerk) as well as “Steeltown Marchers” Barbara Arrowsmith, Joel Hutchison, Jan Volk, Amy Warren and Talmage Watts.
What to say about the creatives? Music Director and Pianist Amy Tate Williams, Lighting Designer Barry Steele, Costume Designer June Kingsbury, Scenic Designer Cara Schneider (that modern “Loose Tweets Sink Fleets!” play on “Loose Lips Sink Ships!” in the awesome backdrop she designed – that even includes Z.P. Nikolaki-inspired imagery – is a hoot), Wigs and Makeup Designer Sondra Nottingham and Propsmaster Lucius Rhoads are the best and their top-tier contributions really made this “Candle” burn bright. Top-tier kudos, too, for Stage Manager Taylor Wood, Technical Director Randy Williams, Costume Coordinator Pam Lisenby, Costume Crew members Jayme Locke and Eleanna Flautt, Wigs and Makeup Crew members Jennifer Ortiz, Alysia Faith and Tammy Potts-Merritt, Supertitles Operater Anna Young (and Hoomes, who created those supertitles).
Hoomes and colleagues have certainly ended Nashville Opera’s 2018-19 season in superb fashion with “The Cradle Will Rock.” Their current wave of premier work, and their glittering history, have me so excited about the 2019-20 season that begins October 10&12 with Madame Butterfly!