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Bound to Rise

Medicine Show Theatre revives its dark musical take on the rags-to-riches narrative.

Scott Schutzman and Jonathan Emerson (center) star in Stephen Policoff and Robert Dennis' Bound to Rise, directed by Oliver Conant, at Medicine Show Theatre.
(© Don Rittner)

When we wake up from the American dream, will we realize that it was a nightmare all along? The creators of Bound to Rise certainly think so. With music by Robert Dennis and book and lyrics by Stephen Policoff, the musical is based on the writings of Horatio Alger, whose rags-to-riches stories were best sellers in America's first Gilded Age, creating the popular notion of a land of endless opportunity unlocked through hard work and honesty.

The original production, mounted at the height of Reaganomics, won Medicine Show Theatre founder Barbara Vann a 1985 Obie Award for direction. It proved popular enough to merit a revival in 1997, right at the beginning of the dot-com boom (which famously went bust). This year must have seemed as good a time as ever to remount the musical in Medicine Show's intimate off-off-Broadway theater. The new production is undeniably memorable, but rarely in a good way.

Thrillingly, Bound to Rise is the kind of musical one hardly ever sees in New York anymore, in which the large cast nearly outnumbers the audience. The oversize ensemble portrays the swelling throngs of New York City circa 1890. In this environment of fast-talking shysters, proud plutocrats, and bomb-throwing anarchists, we watch the fortunes rise and fall for our four protagonists: Helen Lord (Justyna Kostek) comes to the city looking for work so she can keep her mother in her home. Match boy Mark Manton (John Cencio Burgos) leaves a dead-end life in Philadelphia for the bright lights and brighter prospects of NYC. Walter Sherwood (Paolo Solis) grew up rich, but has fallen on hard times. Dick Hunter (Jonathan Emerson), known on the streets as "ragged Dick," is an illiterate bootblack without a penny to his name. But when he saves Violet Grayson (Kathleen Wilce) from falling off the Brooklyn Bridge, her rich uncle, Mr. Stone (Scott Schutzman), decides to help Dick improve his station.

As they stroll up Broadway, the ingenue Violet asks Dick, "Why do some people have so much and others so little?" Suddenly, the entire cast shoots an accusatory stare at the audience. A Brechtian silence follows for several seconds so we can think about our complicity in capitalism.

Justyna Kostek plays Helen, and Richard Keyser plays Conrad in Bound to Rise at Medicine Show Theatre.
(© Don Rittner)

In adapting the cherished myths of our republic into a Lehrstück (or "learning play"), Policoff raises big issues: How much of the meritocracy is really about ability? Is the notion of a "Protestant work ethic" grounded in the Protestant concept of "the elect," in which a small group of people is predestined for prosperity and salvation, no matter their personal choices? How have these ideas been transposed into modern, pseudoscientific justifications for inequality, like social Darwinism? These are timelessly relevant questions that become sadly obscured in this haphazard revival.

Policoff clearly wants to teach us something with his book, and director Oliver Conant stages with a correspondingly heavy hand. While some of his stage pictures exhibit real thrift and ingenuity, using overlapping scenes to convey the hefty exposition, others disappoint: Too many scenes are staged far upstage, where Daniel Schreckengost's anemic lighting obscures the actors' faces. Derek Lockwood succeeds in the herculean task of crafting period costumes out of contemporary clothing, even allowing for some fancy embellishments: a cameo pendant for a lady, a paisley waistcoat for a man. The set is atmospherically shabby (no designer is credited), which would seem like a great choice for this tale of poverty were it not betrayed by the general shabbiness of the production.

Unfortunately, the ensemble also proves to be a weak link. Their attack on group numbers is uncertain, with a few brave singers diving into the first note, followed by the others when it is safe. As a result, the actors spend much of each song hunting for the right key. Composer Dennis has made the task of music directors Gregory Nissen and Jonathan Matthews considerably more difficult by writing tricky, ever-changing rhythms, ill-fitting counterpoint, and prolonged notes on inhospitable vowels.

Between line flubs and wooden physicality, the acting isn't much better, but there are a few glimmers of hope: As the arrogant millionaire Mr. Stone, Schutzman is committed in his grotesque affectation. Beth Griffith's church lady soprano is right-on for the rich widow Mrs. Hamilton.

Jonathan Emerson plays Dick Hunter in Bound to Rise at Medicine Show Theatre.
(© Don Rittner)

The standout performer of the cast is Emerson. He brings unbridled energy, real heart, and a full voice to the role of Dick Hunter. Just like his character, Emerson seems young, scrappy, and hungry — we get the sense that he will be OK in this business.

While Emerson is indeed exceptional among this cast, Bound to Rise rightly casts doubt on the sustainability of a system built to reward the exceptional few while punishing the unexceptional many. And as we can see in the play and in life, capital trumps talent every time, so that even the exceptional get left behind. Bound to Rise is, unfortunately, a mediocre musical in an unforgiving theatrical landscape.

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