This review of Bound To Rise at Medicine Show Theatre (also known as The Barbara Vann & James Barbosa Theatre) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Bound To Rise
A Musical Based on the writings of Horatio Alger Jr. & Jacob Riis
Original Production invented & shaped by Barbara Vann
Book & Lyrics by Stephen Policoff
Score by Robert Dennis
Directed by Oliver Conant (with Paul Murphy & Regan Batuello)
Music Direction by Gregory Nissen & Jonathan Matthews
Costumes by Derek Lockwood
Choreography by Theresa Duhon
Lighting Design by Daniel Schreckengost
Medicine Show Theatre
a/k/a The Barbara Vann & James Barbosa Theatre
549 West 52nd Street, 3rd Floor
New York, New York 10019
Bound To Rise is a two-and-half hour Anti-American and Anti-Capitalist diatribe that perverts the "rags to respectability" message in Horatio Alger Jr.'s stories and uses the writings of Jacob Riis to reinforce its blatant, radical, anarchist political message that only violence against the United States Government and the rich who run it can provide any hope for the downtrodden or a diminishment in income inequality ("dynamite is needed to oppose economic oppression"). The musical intertwines four Horatio Alger Jr. stories, the most prominent of which is Ragged Dick; or, Street Life In New York With The Boot Blacks starring the very charismatic and talented actor Jonathan Emerson as Dick Hunter (allegedly a 14-year old boot black who is hard working, honest and anxious to "turn over a new leaf to grow up 'spectable'"). The play is set in the 1890s during the Gilded Age ("Behold The Robber Baron's Greed") but the disparity in wealth that is depicted was used when this musical was first staged in 1985 to make political points against "Saint Ronald Reagan" and his "trickle down economics & sugary Morning In America speeches" now revived by terrorists-in-training with a pro-violence message to protest the election of "con man" Donald Trump who has provided us with "a great deal of hot air" filled with "lies." Linking the two Presidents, Christopher Hirschmann Brandt, Medicine Show Theatre Manager (who is actually a fine actor and did a good job in this production portraying Joseph Root, a crusading journalist for The New York Sun) wrote the following in the program: "As Einstein said, doing the same thing over and over when we are confronted with the same problem is a mark of insanity. But maybe we're not insane, maybe we didn't buy the man who promised us lies, empty slogans, billions of dollars in debt, and a spoken language so inadequate that he had to repeat everything he said at least twice. Maybe he bought us. After all, that's what a confidence man does - he "buys" our confidence with his promises, and when we discover those promises are utterly devoid of content or value, he is long gone, along with our hopes, our dreams, and our money."
Horatio Alger Jr. (January 13, 1832 - July 18, 1899) was a prolific 19th-century American writer, best known for his many young adult novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work, determination, courage, and honesty. Alger was an inspiration for many young boys and his books were quite popular. Several elements of his "Strive & Succeed" philosophy included: Hard Work, Study (informal rather than formal), Loyalty to Supervisors & Subordinates, Abstaining from Alcohol & Gambling, Frugal Living, Importance of Dress & Personal Grooming, Personal Integrity, Speaking & Writing Effectively, Avoidance of Violence & Revenge, Speaking The Whole Truth, The Brotherhood of Males, Obligation to Help & Protect The Weak & Unfortunate, Duty to Mother (or Sisters), Courtesy To All, Accepting The Success of Others, Accepting the Assistance of Benefactors, and an Expectation of One's Own Success. His stories depicted the efforts of New York City's underclass in the 19th century to cope with extreme poverty, misfortune, and other obstacles to social mobility but they always had an optimistic tone to them (glass is half full perspective) whereas the book for this musical reflects the opinion that there might be one drop of water left in the glass we call "The American Dream" and that if you believe in it, you are either an idiot, delusional, or deranged. A combination of Good Morals and Good Fortune led to the success of many of the boys written about in Horatio Alger's novels. That message has been turned on its head in Bound To Rise, making you long to race home to take a shower to wash off the slime and unrealistic portrayal of all rich people, shown here as selfish, insensitive, immoral, deliberately cruel elitists, who are driven only by greed. Even Mr. Stone of The New York Central Railroad ("I don't know enough about ethics to apply them to business"), Dick Hunter's benefactor, is explicitly depicted as a "pedophile" who "makes small deposits" into his "bank account from time to time" in return for being given access to Dick Hunter's back door whenever he feels the urge to walk down that path.
Bound To Rise features three other stories, each which are wrapped up in a fancy bow with a false "happy ending" leaving you depressed with little reason for hope or optimism. Paolo Solis is excellent as Walter Sherwood, whose Guardian takes him out of Yale, lies to him about his inheritance having become greatly diminished, and sends him off to New York City to make it on his own. John Cencio Burgos was eventually able to shine as Mark Manton, a pyromaniacal "match boy" from Philadelphia, and Justyna Kostek, was uninspiring as Helen Lord ("from the less industrious branch of the family from Connecticut"). In the order of appearance during the curtain call, Ms. Kostek was the lead actress in this production followed by Mr. Burgos and Mr. Emerson. This is a true miscarriage of justice. The lead actor in this musical is Jonathan Emerson and he deserves recognition for his extraordinary performance. The only other actor in the cast I found worthy of note was Mark J. Dempsey, who played Mr. Davenport and Leo the Magnificent, a magician. There were major problems with the choreography and the musical direction. I have no idea whether this is because the cast did not have a sufficient number of rehearsals or whether it reflects a lack of vocal talent. There were a few memorable songs in this musical but none of them were listed in the program. I particularly liked one number about the importance of women wearing corsets ("A Woman Must Bind") and the main number "Bound To Rise" was quite tuneful but had hackneyed lyrics such as "And Just Like The Sun, I'm Bound To Rise" and "Fill This World With Hope, It's Bound To Rise." Newspapers are also criticized for not addressing real issues and for printing lies, rumors and gossip to distract us from the real problems we face in our lives. Yet, on the other hand, Joseph Root, a crusading journalist for The New York Sun, is observed telling Mark Manton, the match boy living in a box, not to smile when his photo is being taken in order to emphasize the unhappiness of his supposedly miserable life as a "Street Arab."
Oliver Conant directs the play with a sledge hammer and has the cast freeze on stage for 30 seconds of silence when a line is uttered which he wants the audience to reflect upon. One such line was "Why do some people have so much and others so little?" and the second was, "I can hardly stand. How can I move on?". A third line spoken by Mark Manton might as well have been the third. After Dick Hunter saved his life, the ungrateful "Match Box Manton" (who earlier tried to set Dick Hunter on fire) said "One Little Life - What's The Value Please?" before saying, "What I'd give not to live in a world so cold!" Well, this is the world you live in Mark and your mommy is no longer around to hold your hand and to protect you from all the evil people in the world. Wake up and be a man! When Mark was finally found by his grandmother and taken back to Milwaukee where he will become a wealthy man, I loved Dick Hunter's line, "Good thing he's going to be rich because he sure was a failure at being poor."
Just as Christopher Hirschmann Brandt, Manager of Medicine Company Theatre, opined about "con man" Trump, I can also say that Bound To Rise is similarly "utterly devoid of content or value" (with the exception of the performances of a few actors, especially that of Jonathan Emerson who played the aspiring Richard Hunter Esq. http://www.jonathanemerson.info) and we, too, were conned finding out after having attended, that the money we spent for a ticket is long gone as are the three hours of our life we shall never get back, along with the hopes and dreams we had of seeing a good show. Bound To Rise will be disappointing audiences through February 26, 2017. Tickets are $30.00 ($23.00 for students & seniors) and are available by phone at 1-800-838-3006 or online at www.medicineshowtheatre.org