Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Radical, Relevant Revival of a Witheringly Insightful, Hilarious Broadway Artifact from the 1930s

If you think a Broadway musical from 1937 couldn’t possibly have much relevance to this century, you haven’t seen Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. In this era, most people haven’t. Created under the New Deal auspices of the Federal Theater Project, the Feds notoriously closed it down on the eve of its initial Broadway premiere for being too radical. One can only imagine what the Trumpies would make of something that FDR’s people found too subversive.

The Classic Stage Company‘s current revival – continuing through May 18 – couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Beyond John Doyle’s masterfully smart direction, getting the absolute max out of a minimalist set and a multi-talented cast, what’s most stunning is how well Blitzstein’s uproariously spot-on piece of agitprop has aged. Quaintness only arises in its many historical ironies – like the once-ubiquitous reality of steel made by American union labor, rather than by Chinese slaves.

This show is all about co-optation, and duplicity, Without spoiling the plot (for those who missed the 1999 Tim Robbins film of the same title), be aware that there’s considerable irony in the costumes. Blitzstein’s relentless satire spares no one, other than protagonist and union organizer Larry Foreman, played by a tireless, ebullient Tony Yazbeck, who, interestingly, appears in only about ten percent of the dialogue. He’s looking forward to what appears to be an across-the-board victory for the workers of Steeltown, USA. Only local steel magnate Mr. Mister (David Garrison, who gives him a glowering Lionel Barrymore menace), stands in the way. But he’s making it really hard for everybody. Before the curtain falls, there will be more than one shooting; at least one hapless employee gets caught in the machinery.

Most of the action takes place in song. That those numbers have held up so well over the years testifies to Blitzstein’s reliance on Kurt Weill-style noir, Cole Porter cleverness,, and tinges of gospel and klezmer rather than Depresssion-era vaudeville schlock. Period references abound: lockouts, sitdown strikes, strikebreaking violence. It’s no wonder the censors were so frightened. Everybody sings and plays multiple roles, including three of the cast showing off better-than-average chops at the piano. Rema Webb gets the big arioso vocal moment and hits it out of the park. Kara Mikula distinguishes herself with her voice, on the keys, and also in a fleeting, completely unexpected acrobatic bit. Lara Pulver has brassy poignancy as a hooker in jail, as well as a completely contrasting, savagely ironic alter ego of sorts.

Sally Ann Triplett plays Mrs. Mister with a hilariously relsolute, clueless determination. As her ditzy, heavy-lidded slacker kid, Larry Cooper is even funnier: fauxhemianism goes back a lot further than Bushwick. Benjamin Eakeley is priceless as a mercenary violin virtuoso who gladly lets Mr. Mister buy him off, as pretty much everybody else who might be instrumental in keeping the unions of his mill does. Some have qualms – a doctor, a professor, the publisher of the local newspaper – but eventually pretty much everybody falls in line. Ken Barnett and Ian Lowe impressively negotiate roles on both sides of the divide.

Yet as corrosively cynical as this show is, it’s also a feel-good story. As the protagonist explains, sure, he gets thrown in jail for passing out leaflets – “inciting a riot” was the 1930s equivalent of “terrorism” – but he’s perfectly content to be one of many, standing on the shoulders of giants. Victory really seems inevitable – and in an era that would create union representation for almost thirty percent of American workers, it’s easy to see how contagious that optimism would be. In the meantime, let’s wish the best to the Mexican maquiladora workers in their struggle for something approaching a living wage.

Advertisements

April 21, 2019 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ran Blake and Sara Serpa Make the Ultimate Noir Vocal Jazz Album

This is what David Lynch was going for with Angelo Badalementi and Julee Cruise but never quite managed to nail. Sara Serpa’s expertise is vocalese, a style at which the Portuguese-born chanteuse is ideally suited, yet it’s something she only utilizes on a couple of numbers on her new album Camera Obscura. Her English accent may not be perfect yet but her interpretation of the arrangements here, and her teamwork with her former New England Conservatory teacher, the legendary noir jazz pianist Ran Blake, is extraordinary. She approaches these songs with a devastating clarity and vulnerability: her delivery is completely unadorned, yet absolutely resolute and ultimately fearless. This is arguably the best album so far this year in jazz, or for that matter any style of music, every bit as original as Blake’s landmark 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. A cynic might say that it’s what Hilary Kole should have done on her album with Brubeck and Hank Jones and all those other legends but didn’t.

Nat King Cole’s When Sunny Gets Blue gets a characteristically understated, minimalist treatment. As she does throughout the album, Serpa brings the most minute details of the lyrics vividly to life, particularly the disquieting ones. When she sings, “She lost her smile, changed her style, somehow she’s not the same,” a subtle downturn takes on the weight of an earthquake. Janet McFadden’s playful Our Fair Cat introduces a furry friend who is a murderer in theory – and in practice as well, Blake juxtaposing a blithe bounce with a grim gleam, Serpa taking it solo all the way up to the top of her range, completely deadpan, then Blake launches into a twisted little waltz. Folhas (Leaves), an original setting of a poem by Eugenio de Andrade offers something of a respite from the brooding intensity.

The Short Life of Barbara Monk is a spellbinding noir jazz waltz by Blake. Serpa’s wounded vocalese makes a chill-inducing contrast with Blake’s sinister music-box tinges – and takes the anguish up a notch when Blake turns on a dime and shifts into a fast Mingus-esque swing groove. A second Nat Cole cover, I Should Care, clocks in at a brief minute forty-two, dedicated to Monk and as to the point as it can be considering its murky ambience. A tune by Monk himself, Nutty has Serpa carrying the rhythm over jagged incisions by Blake. Driftwood is a terrifically apt Chris Connor homage, Serpa warmly remembering the beach in summer – and suddenly Blake hits an ominous chord, then leaves her out to dry, and the result is spine-tingling. The version of Cole Porter’s Get Out of Town follows in the same vein. “I care for you much too much” is laden with regret rather than a celebration, Serpa’s voice taking on a desperate tinge as the piano picks up the pace. “Be good to me please -” she stops just short of imploring. “We touch too much,” she asserts with a knowing roll of the eyes. They end the album with April in Paris, which starts out more like the dead of winter and stays like that most of the way, a far cry from the conventionality of the Sinatra hit. Together these two have raised the bar for jazz singing – and accompaniment – to an absurdly high level.

September 1, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment