Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

Paradise Square

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 3, 2022

Paradise Square. Book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan. Music by Jason Howland. Lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. Additional music by Larry Kirwan, inspired in part by the songs of Stephen Foster. Directed by Moisés Kaufman. Musical supervision, music direction, and orchestrations by Jason Howland. Arrangements by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan. Choreography by Bill T. Jones. Musical staging by Alex Sanchez. Scenic design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Jon Weston. Projection design by Wendall K. Harrington. Dramaturgy by Thulani Davis and Sydné Mahone.
Cast: Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Jacob Fishel, Kevin Dennis, Matt Bogart, Aisha Jackson, Garrett Coleman, Colin Barkell, Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Conor Coleman, Eric Craig, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Josh Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Sean Jenness, Joshua Keith, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Kayla Pecchioni, Eilis Quinn, Lee Siegel, Erica Spyres, Lael Van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren, Alan Wiggins, Kristen Beth Williams and Hailee Kaleem Wright.
Theater: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street.

Kevin Dennis (at front with cap), Matt Bogart, Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, Nathaniel Stampley, and Cast
Photo by Kevin Berne
After nearly a decade, Paradise Square, a musical set in New York City's notoriously dangerous Five Points neighborhood in 1863, has finally made the trek to Broadway. Originally titled Hard Times, the show began as a chamber piece featuring the music of Stephen Foster and a book by Larry Kirwan (who also supplemented the score) at the tiny Cell Theatre in Chelsea. After accumulating several new bookwriters, a pair of lyricists, and a (living) composer, the full-blown musical premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2019 and played a pre-Broadway run in Chicago last fall. While the newest iteration gives proof to the old adage that bigger isn't necessarily better, Paradise Square, with its thrilling vocals, virtuosic choreography, and brash declaration of American values, is a bona fide crowd-pleaser. It is not yet, however, a great musical.

Occurring amidst the backdrop of the Civil War, the show primarily takes place in Paradise Square, a raucous tavern run by the formidable Nelly O'Brien (Joaquina Kalukango), a free Black woman who is married to an Irish immigrant and soldier, Willie O'Brien (Matt Bogart). In the exposition-heavy opening, we meet the tavern denizens who represent a cross-section of the Five Points community, which is primarily composed of working-class immigrants and African Americans. These include Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), who is Nelly's sister-in-law and is married to Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley), a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Annie's nephew Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively) has just arrived from Ireland, and he shares a room with escaped slave Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), who is hiding out in the tavern until he can be reunited with his beloved Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton), also an escaped slave.

Other characters in the simmering melting pot include Milton Moore, an itinerant piano player with a penchant for Stephen Foster songs, and "Lucky" Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis), an angry Irishman who has returned from the frontlines of the Civil War as an amputee. The villain of the piece is Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett, who played a very similar role in Newsies), a corrupt anti-abolitionist politician who is determined to close Paradise Square while tearing at the tissue nominally binding together the social and racial riffs within the over-crowded slum.

The musical's book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, and Kirwan is a complete overhaul of Hard Times, which I saw in February 2014. I also saw the pre-Broadway Chicago production, and there have been noticeable improvements (particularly in clarifying the role of the piano player). Nevertheless, I do wish the creative team had realized more of the show's potential. Unlike a show such as Ragtime, which has a similarly large canvas (and which also was produced by the controversial Garth Drabinsky), Paradise Square does not successfully tease through or pull all of the narrative strands together.

Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, and Cast
Photo by Kevin Berne
As if mirroring the social and political tensions of the musical's setting, the book seems to be at war with the music and the choreography. In the end, it's not really a fair fight: The choreography by Bill T. Jones wins hands down. While ragtime reflected the merging of distinctive American musical styles in the late nineteenth century, Jones's work here shows a similar mixing of cultural dance forms earlier in the 1800s. Shively, as the Irish young man who wants to capitalize on his dance abilities to evade conscription, along with dancers Colin Barkell and Garrett Coleman thrillingly exhibit Irish step dancing (choreographed by Coleman and Jason Oremus). Characterized by stiff arms and pencil-straight upper bodies, their feet and legs move like an out-of-control thresher. They are perfectly matched by the equally thrilling DuPont, who also sees dance as a possible ticket to a better life, and Chloe Davis leading an ensemble of Black dancers. Countering with Afro-Caribbean and Juba dance styles, their hunched, undulating bodies, combined with stomping and hand patting, offer a visual history of the emergence of a distinctively American style.

Yet, even the bravura dance eventually overwhelms the narrative. When the characters take part in a dance-off in the second act, for instance, the excitement is diminished, since we had previously seen a nearly identical choreographic culture clash in the first act. To his credit, though, Jones keeps the show in practically constant motion as it whirls and pulsates toward the inevitable Draft Riots.

The songs by Jason Howland and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare fare less well. There are some lovely ballads, such as "Breathe Easy" and "Since the Day I Met You," and some effective period-sounding songs like "Why Should I Die in Springtime." The show has almost completely scrubbed the Stephen Foster melodies, except for "Camptown Races," which is recognizable only by the occasional "doo-dah," and an "Oh! Susanna" motif. Several of the songs that were in the Chicago production have been replaced, but the score sounds very much the same as it did before.

The musical relies heavily on anthem-like songs, but the dramatic power these have emerge more through volume and posture than by stirring musical composition. That is, every time a performer or group of performers stand downstage, heads up, and eyes to the mezzanine, they telegraph that another song of righteous anger and defiance is forthcoming.

This is especially evident in Nelly's eleven-o'clock number, "Let It Burn," which applies this approach, but is musically more adroit than the previous anthems. Make no mistake, Kalukango's delivery is breathtaking, as she forcefully confronts an unseen angry mob while drawing strength from the tremendous loss her character has endured. Although the song references the devastation of the Draft Riots of 1863, it is as if she were singing to a fractured, hurting nation almost two centuries later. Audiences reward her performance of this song with a mid-show standing ovation (and now seems choreographed into the production), but Kalukango is masterful throughout even in the quieter moments, and she deserves every accolade and award that may come her way.

Indeed, director Moisés Kaufman has drawn excellent performances from the entire cast. Kennedy is an endearingly gun-toting spitfire, and she is perfectly matched by Stampley, her calming and resolute on-stage husband. In smaller roles, McClinton, Fishel, and Dennis are terrific.

When the show played Chicago, it was performed on the much larger stage of the James M. Nederlander Theatre. At the Barrymore, the show feels cramped and overly crowded. Perhaps this is appropriate for a musical about the suffocating Five Points neighborhood, but the production boasts a cast of forty, and Allen Moyer's imposing scenic design includes revolving and shifting steel platforms. Ideally, Alex Sanchez's musical staging and Jones's choreography would have more breathing space.

Toni-Leslie James has provided excellent and period-specific costumes (complemented by Matthew B. Armentrout's wigs) that effectively differentiate the characters by class. Donald Holder's lighting is particularly striking in conveying through grey and sepia-colored washes the dirt and grime of the neighborhood while contrasted with a brighter and sunnier (and wealthier) Uptown. Wendall K. Harrington and Shawn Edward Boyle help establish the locations with their projections while offering a view of the gentrified area around Canal Street today.

Perhaps not all of the elements in this scrappy, resilient musical cohere, but there are enough to make Paradise Square worth a visit.