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Bound to Rise

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 2, 2017

Bound to Rise
Photo by Don Rittner

The experimental acting company Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble is paying homage to its late co-founder Barbara Vann with a ramshackle revival of Bound to Rise, a satiric "rags-to-riches" musical that garnered her an Obie Award for her direction of the show's initial run in 1985.

Ms. Vann's influence can be seen in the production's minimalist style, collective improvisation, and the somewhat devil-may-care approach to the performances, all of which are reflective of the kind of avant-garde techniques she brought with her from a long association with the Open Theater in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet Bound to Rise does have a substantial book by Stephen Policoff (who also wrote the lyrics) and a score by Robert Dennis, best known as one of the composers of the long-running "sex revue" Oh! Calcutta!. Together, the show's creators wove a tale that sharply contrasts the lives of the very rich and the very poor living in Manhattan at the end of the 19th century.

Bound to Rise draws its inspiration from the writings of Horatio Alger, whose popular books, aimed at young adults, promoted the virtues of honesty, hard work, and gritty determination as a means of upward mobility. The show features four such down-and-out characters, each of them in dire circumstances that lead them to try to seek a better life in New York. There's Mark (John Cencio Burgos), the match boy, who has run away from his cruel stepmother; Helen (Justyna Kostek), who has come to the city in order to raise enough funds to pay off the mortgage on her mother's modest home; Walter (Paolo Solis), a one-time Yale student who has been thrust into the cruel world by his guardian; and Ragged Dick (Jonathan Emerson), a bootblack and street urchin who yearns for a better life.

The show surrounds these naïve and hapless waifs with a cornucopia of lowlifes and scoundrels of all types and stations in life, with enough con artists, thieves, prostitutes, anarchists, and robber barons to inhabit several Charles Dickens novels. As the play progresses, the four central characters find themselves repeatedly bullied and taken advantage of, until, by happenstance, each falls into an unexpected bit of luck that changes their circumstances.

Stylistically and musically, the tone of the show is melodramatic and laden with snarky references to the greed and malevolence of the moneyed class. The rich do not want to be bothered with the less fortunate, and they are quite happy to kick anyone who is down; their repeated mantra is "Times are hard/Money is tight/Business is bad/Go jump in the river." A highlight of the show is the depiction of the annual Champagne Ball, the event of the season whose theme is that of a "poverty social," to which the wealthy guests come dressed in tattered clothing and drink their champagne out of beer buckets.

The 14 members of the cast, most of whom play several roles, keep the show moving along at a steady clip (direction of the revival is credited to Oliver Conant, with Paul Murphy and Regan Batuello) as it jumps across the multiple story lines. Of the singing, however, it's best just to let your ears cling to every note performed by Beth Griffith, whose beautiful soprano is well worth seeking out among the kinda-sorta warbling going on around her, all to the accompaniment of a piano and some occasional lively banjo picking.

Bound to Rise
Through February 26
Medicine Show Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, 3rd Floor, between 10th and 11th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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