Regional Reviews: Chicago
Set in New York City's notorious Five Corners slum in 1863, where for a time Irish immigrants lived in harmony with free people of color, Paradise Square, like Ragtime, examines the relationships between some of the diverse ethnic and racial groups that make up the U.S. population. "Paradise Square" is the name of an apparently fictitious saloon in Five Corners owned by a Black woman, Nelly O'Brien, wife of white Irishman Willie O'Brien, and hangout for the Black and Irish people of the neighborhood. The harmony between the two groups first begins to unravel from competition for the few available jobs, and then, more dramatically, when the military draft of 1863 seeks to conscript white men, including new immigrants, to fight in the Civil War, but not Black men. In dialogue that sounds similar to comments we hear today, a group of "others" is seen as a threat to the well-being and livelihood of another group.
With its cast of 33 and near-operatic score by Jason Howland ( Little Women), Paradise Square rivals Ragtime in scope and ambition, even if it sports a simpler set and requires a smaller range of costumes. And Drabinsky and director Moisés Kaufman have assembled a stunning cast led by the fierce Joaquina Kalukango (a Tony Award nominee for Slave Play) as bar owner Nelly O'Brien. Her Nelly is tough enough to stand up to the political bosses of New York and face an angry mob during the draft riots all while holding a high note for what seems like minutes. Kalukango gets strong support from Chilina Kennedy as Nelly's equally feisty Irish sister-in-law Annie Lewis; Nathaniel Stampley as Nelly's brother and Annie's husband, the Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis; and John Dossett as the villainous boss Frederic Tiggens.
Cast in the sorts of roles and giving the sorts of performances that attract award nominations are Sidney DuPont as escaped slave Washington Henry and A. J. Shively as the just-off-the-boat Owen Duignan. The two are new arrivals to Paradise Square who must share a room and eventually become competitors in a dance contest arranged by Nelly to raise money to pay off some exorbitant fines levied by the political bad guys in hopes of putting her saloon out of business. That contest, along with other moments in the show, offer DuPont and Shively the chance to shine as singers, actors, and especially as solo dancers. They have two of the shining moments in Bill T. Jones's stunning choreography that incorporates Irish dance as well as African-American dance influences. DuPont's big song is a duet with Stampley's Reverend Lewis ("I'd be a Soldier") and Shively's is the lovely faux Irish folk song, "Why Should I Die in Springtime?"
But despite the estimable skill of the performers, and the beautiful melodies and intricate harmonies of Howland's score (with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare), bookwriters Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan have yet to tell their story of this important historical moment in compellingly dramatic terms. With six major characters (and four minor ones) sharing what stage time is available after Jones's dances (which, stunning as they are, do not really advance the plot or develop characters), we don't get sufficiently invested in the characters. There are so many historical points the writers coverthe economic hardships, the anti-abolitionist politicians, slavery and the Underground Railroad, the Irish potato faminethat the dialogue is heavy on exposition at the expense of character development. As a result, the songs, as beautiful as they often are, don't always earn their emotional moments. Once we're in the second act these characters and plot lines collide and the story arc becomes more urgent and satisfying. It just takes a lot of first-act exposition to get there.
The set, by Allen Moyer, is mainly a few pieces of movable scaffolding and a unit representing the Paradise Square bar, and it doesn't suggest a specific time or place (which is a problem for a musical about a special time and place). It's not helped by Donald Holder's lighting, which is more mood-setting than literal. There are projections (by Wendall K. Harrington) toward the end of the show that bring us into time and placeone wonders why projections weren't used more extensively. Toni-Leslie James' costumes, though, seem to bring us into 1863 quite nicely.
In its important themes (historical but more than relevant today), its superb performances, and its grand score (with rich orchestrations created and conducted by the composer and variations on Stephen Foster songs by co-bookwriter Kirwan), Paradise Square has a lot going for it in terms of its individual elements. It just has some distance to go in editing and blending them into a story that not only communicates the intended themes but tells them better in individual human terms that evoke the visceral response that lifts a musical from something admirable into a hit.
Paradise Square through December 5, 2021, at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street, Chicago IL. For further information and tickets, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com. It is scheduled to begins previews on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre in February 2022.