I may have accidentally joined the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union during Frank Theatre’s “The Cradle Will Rock.”

It’s just so easy to get caught up in the unironic intensity of the operetta, which makes a plea for the working person in a series of songs, playing out like the love child of Frank Capra and “The Threepenny Opera.” The show was funded by the New Deal in 1937 to employ artists and spread the message that the economy thrives when we create opportunity for everyone. Frank’s committed cast of 17 performs “Cradle” much like you’d imagine it was done eight decades ago, as if nothing has changed in the intervening years. And, really, has it?

Even though director Wendy Knox first staged “Cradle” for Frank Theatre in 2003, it feels muscular and very much of-the-moment. It’s a go-for-broke production, with stark effects that sometimes splash the actors in white-hot light, like a Weegee crime-scene tableau. Those actors are dolled up in vaudeville-style makeup — raccoon eyes and slice-of-beet cheeks — so they appear freakish and otherworldly as the show begins, but as Marc Blitzstein’s songs accrue over the course of the show, their human frailties emerge. “The Cradle Will Rock” makes you laugh, until it breaks your heart.

We’re in Steeltown, where everyone who doesn’t knuckle under to a tycoon named Mr. Mister (JC Cutler) gets ground into the dust (it’s not unlike the Bedford Falls that Capra later depicted in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). A labor organizer (Carl Schoenborn) tries to organize townspeople to fight back, but he’s up against mistrust of foreigners, an economy of scarcity and the pain of poverty. So, although each violent act perpetrated by Mister and his minions makes us think, “Surely somebody will stand up to this,” somehow — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — nobody does.

Knox and music director Sonja Thompson guide the cast through a mood-swinging show that feels as much like a staged concert as it does a play. Hector Chavarria and Scotty Reynolds get big laughs with three numbers, only to be followed by Kate Beahen, who is devastating as downtrodden prostitute Moll. Her torch song, “Nickel Under the Foot,” describes a moment she was about to pick up a coin only to discover it was garbage: “Mister, you have no idea what it felt like, thinking that was a nickel under my foot.”

It’s hard to say if this is hopeful or not, but the prospect of change grows stronger as “The Cradle Will Rock” gets bleaker. When Maria Asp, as the sister of a man killed in Mr. Mister’s factory sings, “It takes a lot of Joes to make a sound you can hear. How many ... does it take to make you wise?” perhaps she convinces her fellow characters to look out for their own interests?

“The Cradle Will Rock” lays out the problem of Big Business controlling everything, without offering solutions. That’s one area in which Frank embroiders on Blitzstein’s original, sending audiences for the exits with a more recent song blasting out of the speakers: Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”

 

chris.hewitt@startribune.com

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