Between composer Marc Blitzstein's persistent cult of admirers and musical-theater revivalists, it beggars belief that "No for an Answer" has never been fully staged. Something of a follow-up to "The Cradle Will Rock," show sports many of the same joys and problems of its fabled predecessor.

Between composer Marc Blitzstein’s persistent cult of admirers and musical-theater revivalists, it beggars belief that “No for an Answer” has never been fully staged. Something of a follow-up to “The Cradle Will Rock,” show sports many of the same joys and problems of its fabled predecessor. Cast with student thesps from American Conservatory Theater’s current MFA program, Carey Perloff’s world preem production sorely lacks professional refinement. Nonetheless, even in this rough form, the musical is an unpolished diamond that shines. Regional theaters, celebrity concert impresarios and those always sniffing for lost musical gold should take note.

In some ways, “Answer” reps an improvement on “Cradle’s” agitprop song-theater, with political content better integrated into a focused central narrative. In the “jerkwater town” of Crest Lake in upstate N.Y., poor and ethnic service workers laid off after each underpaid “summer season” gather at the Dionygenes Social Club — otherwise known as Greek immigrant Nick’s (Adam Ludwig) lunch counter — to discuss survival strategies. Their gatherings have already attracted disapproving notice from the rich “swells” uptown, who’ve dispatched thugs to intimidate.

Also attracted here is slumming swell Paul (Ryan Farley), a self-confessed “drunkard and bum” intoxicated further by the idealistic high that being “down amongst the common people” provides. He’s dragged uptight socialite wife Clara (Julie Fitzpatrick) down with him this time, hoping to convert her to the cause — which could be useful, since she’s sister to the never-seen president of the strong-arm-deploying Resorters Assn. Their visit coincides with a jubilant celebration that greets the return (after a six-month Georgia jail term) of Nick’s union-organizer son, Joe (Jed Orlemann).

Clara is loath to believe her own kin would knowingly keep these downtrodden folk underfoot. Yet she refuses to turn a blind eye when police frame Nick’s joint as illegally selling liquor. Climax finds her proving gutsier than her thrill-seeking souse-spouse, though things still end tragically.

“No for an Answer” often charges headlong into heavy-handed “Waiting for Lefty”-style polemicism, complete with dated ethnic stereotypes. Yet its innovation and delicacy elsewhere often surprises. This “opera” (not at all short on spoken dialogue, but sporting almost continuous music) neatly floats a large character gallery. It achieves Sondheimesque levels of ironic melodic/lyrical counterpoint in several scenes, as when Joe serenades girlfriend Francie (Heidi Armbruster) with some canoodlesome warbling while she anxiously patter-songs her real-world fears. Blitzstein brilliantly sustains complex choral-ensemble set pieces, like the titular first-act closer.

Perhaps most startling — if not most smoothly woven in — are a couple of numbers where Blitzstein makes blistering fun of his creative-elite contemporaries, both served up as ditties that keep petulant Paul entertained at his watering hole. The first, “Dimples,” devastatingly parodies both Depression Tin Pan Alley hits (e.g. “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) and the Noel Coward/Cole Porter school of overeducated innuendo. Act two’s specialty number likewise sends up pretensions of Yank expats going “bohemian.” Both are delightfully performed by Jessica Diane Turner and Neil Edward Hopkins. Their finesse stands out a bit too well amid a highly variable company.

Perloff does keeps things moving, and coaxes some other standout moments from the inexperienced cast — T. Edward Webster hits the spot (in performance know-how if not vocal ability) in his spotlight patter as goofy lunch-counter denizen Bulge, while Ludwig drolly soft-sells Nick’s late ode to Lady Liberty. But her cast is largely overmatched by the material.

While faithful Communist Party member Blitzstein did once profess a preference for amateur performers, he surely wrote music more complicated than any but well-trained pros could be expected to get right. Musical director Peter Maleitzke’s surefooted piano accompaniment helps a great deal, Elizabeth Mead’s WPA-mural-inspired set somewhat less so.

Staging reps first fruit in an arrangement whereby ACT will make regular use of the seldom-used, steeply raked theater in downtown S.F. children’s activity “museum” Zeum.

No for an Answer

Zeum Theater, San Francisco; 210 Seats; $15 Top

Production

An ACT Conservatory presentation of an ACT Master of Fine Arts Program production of a musical in two acts, with book, music, lyrics by Marc Blitzstein. Directed by Carey Perloff. Musical direction, Peter Maleitzke; choreography, Francine Landes.

Creative

Sets, Elizabeth Mead; costumes, Cassandra Carpenter; lighting, Peter Maradudin; sound, Cliff Caruthers; dramaturg, Paul Walsh; stage manager, Katherine Riemann; artistic adviser, Michael Tilson Thomas. Opened, reviewed Oct. 25, 2001. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

With: Heidi Armbruster, Jennifer Charles, Michael Chmiel, Michael Goncalves Davis, Ryan Farley, Julie Fitzpatrick, Sara Homayoon, Neil Edward Hopkins, Adam Ludwig, Jed Orlemann, Renee Penegor, Sky Soleil, Finnerty Steeves, Jessica Diane Turner, Melissa Von Siegel, T. Edward Webster, Coley Grundman, Sara Hauter, Nathan Peterman, Bradford J. Shreve.
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