Created by Medicine Show Theatre; Based on the writings of Horatio Alger and jacob Riis
Book and Lyrics by Stephen Policoff; Score by Robert Dennis
Directed by Oliver Conant, with Paul Murphy and Regan Batuello
Off Off Broadway, Musical Revival
Runs through 2.26.17
Medicine Show Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street
by Linda Buchwald on 2.15.17
Scott Schutzman and Jonathan Emerson (center) in Bound to Rise. Photo by Don Rittner.
BOTTOM LINE: A timely, but disappointing, revival of a musical from the 1980s about life in the 1890s.
One can see why Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble would choose to revive its 1984 Bound to Rise. Even though it takes place in the 1890s, it is timely in its depiction of class divides. Co-founder Barbara Vann won an Obie for her original direction, but unfortunately, there is not a lot to recommend this production.
Even if the production were flawless, the musical might never be more than a curiosity. The book by Stephen Policoff is based on four of Horatio Alger's novels, so there is a lot of plot. It mainly focuses on four young characters—Helen Lord (Justyna Kostek), who needs money to pay the rent so she and her mother don't get evicted, Mark Manton (John Cencio Burgos), an orphan who goes to New York in search of a better life, Walter Sherwood (Paolo Solis), a former Yale student who has fallen on hard times, and Dick Hunter (Jonathan Emerson), a bootblack with ambition. It's hard to root for Mark and Walter because so many of their misfortunes come down to poor decisions. They are constantly getting tricked into losing their money. It's one thing to be poor because of circumstances beyond your control, but there is a point at which your own stupidity is to blame. Helen and Dick come off a little better. Although not hard to predict how each character will reach his or her unlikely happy ending, the stories are never boring, and the two hours and twenty minutes go by fast.
Though director Oliver Conant (credited with help by Paul Murphy and Regan Batuello) perhaps could have guided his actors more in terms of performance—the acting is often a bit over-the-top, too large for such a small theater—he effectively stages the action to present multiple stories simultaneously, while allowing the double-cast actors to switch back and forth between roles. But while the large cast works hard, for the most part the singing is off-key, making it hard to judge Bob Dennis's music. And some of the directing choices are a bit heavy-handed. For example, there are two lines about the state of the world in which the cast stares at the audience in silence, implicating us. This might have worked if the rest of the tone was consistent, but these moments are too few and out of place with the rest of the piece.
Derek Lockwood's costumes for the wealthy are impressive for what must be a low budget, and his clothes for the poor are sufficiently ragged and dirty, as is the set, not credited with a designer. This production might not have turned these rags to riches, but the dedication of everyone involved is evident, and emblematic of the American dream.
(Bound to Rise plays at Medicine Show Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, through February 26, 2017. The running time is two hours and twenty minutes with an intermission. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 3 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $30, $23 for seniors and students, and are available at brownpapertickets.com or by calling 212-262-4216. For more information visit medicineshowtheatre.org.)
Bound to Rise is created by Medicine Show, based on the writings by Horatio Alger and Jacob Riis. Book and Lyrics are by Stephen Policoff. Score is by Robert Dennis. Directed by Oliver Conant (with Paul Murphy and Regan Batuello. Choreography is by Theresa Duhon. Lighting Design is by Daniel Schreckengost. Costume Design is by Derek Lockwood. Music Direction is by Gregory Nissen and Jonathan Matthews.
The cast is Christopher Hirschmann Brandt, Oliver Conant, John Cencio Burgos, Mark J. Dempsey, Pamela Ehn, Jonathan Emerson, Mark Gering, Beth Griffith, Richard Gross, Richard Keyser, Justyna Kostek, Scott Schutzman, Paolo Solis, and Kathleen Wilce.