True story: I’ve learned more about American History from musical theater than I did in any classroom, thanks to such shows as “Assassins,” “1776,” and, of course, “Hamilton.” While “Paradise Square,” now bowing at the Barrymore Theater, is not in the same league in those classics, this ambitious if overstuffed tuner has illuminated me about a period during the Civil War of which I was unaware.
In the early 1860s, blacks and the Irish cohabitated -- and married each other -- peacefully in the now-defunct Five Points section of New York, until the Draft Riot of 1863 upended their lives. For a few days, much of white New York -- led by the unhappy Irish who felt targeted by President Lincoln’s order for forced conscription -- turned against their black brethren and caused that somewhat fragile peace to temporarily crumble. What happened then is a cautionary tale for today.
Given this rich foundation, one sincerely wishes that the creators of “Paradise Square” – which includes director Moises Kaufman, choreographer Bill Jones, and six separate people responsible for the show’s book and score (not including the late, perhaps not-so-great Stephen Foster) -- had applied a less-is-more philosophy to the undertaking. Instead, there are eventually so many “main” characters that it’s had to care deeply about more than one or two of them.
Who you won’t forget – perhaps ever -- is the extraordinary Joaquina Kalukango, who centers the entire show as Nelly O’Brien, the black owner of the Paradise Square bar, which provides a haven for everyone in the Five Points, The daughter of a slave, Nelly – who is happily married to white Irishman Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart, who disappears too quickly) – is a shrewd businesswoman and kind person who ultimately must fight tooth-and-nail for professional and personal survival, having been targeted by bigoted white politician Frederic Teggins (John Dossett in rather standard villain mode.)
Fortunately, when the going gets really tough, Nelly puts people over property and humanity over philosophy as she declaims in her ovation-producing 11’o clock number, “Let It Burn,” the show’s finest song. (Kalukango is also given another gorgeous ballad, “Heaven Save Our Home,” which concludes the 90-minute first act.)
In her struggles to keep the bar afloat, Nelly has lots of allies, including her white sister-in-law, the very fiery Annie Lewis (a rather strident Chilina Kennedy) and her black husband, the cool-headed Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (a stalwart Nathaniel Stampley). However, the creators have added a lot more folks into the mix, including disgruntled Irish war veteran, “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (an effective Kevin Dennis), and Annie’s nephew Owen (an initially charming A. J. Shively), a recent arrival from Ireland who discovers the streets are paved with anything but gold.
And then there’s runaway slave Washington Henry (the incredibly charismatic Sidney DuPont), whose backstory, when revealed, may shift some of the audience’s sympathy for his plight. Heck, even the bar’s new pianist, Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), turns out to be different than he first seems in a clever but unnecessary twist.
Still, kudos belong to all of the cast for their commitment to the piece, and especially to Shively, DuPont and the superb ensemble for executing tons of beautifully performed Irish stepdance and the great Bill T. Jones’ consistently striking if anachronistic modern movement. Dancing this good on Broadway should never be overlooked.
In the end, however, I think if the show had focused more squarely on its three primary characters and the regular denizens of the bar, it might have been easier to digest. Ultimately, there are just too many proverbial “round holes” to comfortably fit into this “Square” peg!
By Brian Scott Lipton
Visit the Site
Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Matt Bogart, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Kevin Dennis, Jacob Fishel, Colin Barkell, Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Garrett Coleman, Eric Craig, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Josh Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Jacobi Hall, Sean Jenness, Joshua Keith, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Kayla Pecchioni, Eilis Quinn, Lee Siegel, Erica Spyres, Lael van Keuren, Alan Wiggins, Kristen Beth Williams, Hailee Kaleem Wright
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
234 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036