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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Paradise Square
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Come from Away

The Cast of Paradise Square
Photo by Kevin Berne
It's an odd thing to stare into the past and see the future.

In Paradise Square, the ambitious new musical making its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Roda Theatre, a trip back to lower Manhattan at the time of the Civil War illuminates a moment—brief as a match's burn—in which a collection of outcasts, mainly free blacks and newly immigrated Irish, create a community that becomes a safe space (an exceedingly tiny one) for themselves at the butt-end of a city filled with people who ignore, abuse, or detest them.

There are—and have been—many (but not nearly enough) places where maligned groups have sought safety and community, until the larger community finally acknowledges their inherent humanity, and the need (or proscription) for a ghetto dissipates. Like our own Castro, New York's Five Points neighborhood became a place where people could live outside some of society's norms and strictures and make a home for themselves. In Five Points, people of African and European descent could mix, even marry, and just be "different people tryin' to survive."

Those words are delivered by Nelly Freeman (a fiery, focused Christina Sajous). Nelly runs the Paradise Square saloon and, as curtain rises, is sending her beloved off to fight for the Union, promising to marry him the moment he returns. If you are expecting this to end well, heed these words, also Nelly's: "You end up blind looking at the bright side of things."

As the men head south, an escaped slave (Sidney Dupont) who has been given the name William Henry Lane by the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish (Daren A. Herbert), an operative on the Underground Railroad, has come north. Cornish wants Lane to continue north, where he'll be safer, but Lane refuses: he and his "gal" were separated on the journey and he won't leave New York until they can be reunited. Cornish pleads with Nelly to take in the young man, but Nelly's pistol-packing Irish barmaid Annie has a nephew newly arrived from Ireland who needs the one room Nelly has available.

This being a musical, the two men have a dance-off to see who gets the space, not unlike the throwdowns of New York of the 1980s, where crews of breakdancers alternated in one-upping one another with their moves. If that sounds pasted-on, a weak attempt to wedge some dance into a rather dark story, it is, and it isn't. Musicals need dance, and the creators of Paradise Square knew it was Irish step dance moves merging with African rhythms that gave birth to tap. Annie's nephew Owen (A.J. Shively) was a champion dancer back home, but William Henry Lane has his own moves and the throwdown ends in a tie.

But William and Owen aren't the only new arrivals in Nelly's Paradise Square. Stephen Foster—yes, that Stephen Foster, composer of "Camptown Races" and "Beautiful Dreamer"—shows up one day, drunk and penniless, sees Nelly's sign seeking a piano player, and makes himself useful—but only after hastily adopting a pseudonym after learning of Nelly's contempt for his music. Soon William and Owen are dancing for tips to the rhythms Foster (now Milton Moore) lays down for them. Clearly, Paradise Square has big ambitions and a lot of story to tell. And I haven't gotten into the big conflict that powers act two.

With a cast of 34 and a gigantic set (by Allen Moyer) with steel enclosures that suggest tenement fire escapes and a turntable that spins to reveal the saloon on one side and a variety of locations on the other, the show almost overwhelms the relatively intimate Roda Theatre. As with previous musicals Berkeley Rep has co-produced (American Idiot, Ain't Too Proud, it seems the creators have Broadway on their minds. Given the scale of Paradise Square, it might fit better in a big Broadway house.

Before any planned move, however, the producers will need to tighten the first act considerably. It currently runs 80 minutes, and there are at least three songs that felt like first act closers to me. And yet, every time, the show continued, and I began noticing audience members checking their watches. Though the book is overwritten in places, and gets a little heavy-handed with its politics (at least for progressive Berkeley—other audiences might need the extra guidance), there are some lovely moments. The show also illuminates historical events many in the audience likely knew little or nothing about.

There is some truly lovely writing here. One notable instance is how bookwriters Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan handle terms used to disparage people of color. Though the N-word was probably bandied about with far more frequency at this time in history, the term the writers use far more often is "colored." This, of course, brings its own negative connotations, especially to our modern ears, but when the N-word does drop (just one time, if I remember correctly), it magnifies its impact, creating a powerful reminder of what that word represents.

The music, by Jason Howland (Little Women) and Larry Kirwin, with lyrics by Nathan Tysen, has some wonderful songs, notably "Nelly Was a Lady" and "Let It Burn," filled with driving rhythms and powerful orchestrations that are played by a rock-solid 11-piece band. The original music is supplemented by new arrangements of some of Stephen Foster's songs, including "Camptown Races," "Angelina Baker," "Hard Times Come Again No More," and "Beautiful Dreamer," a gorgeous rendition of which closes the show on a bittersweet note.

Which brings me back to the beginning—how Paradise Square shows us a vision of a possible future by looking back 170 or so years. For, as we experience the sundering of America into two conflicting identities, and the progress we've made in terms of equality and justice seem to be slipping from our grasp, it's unsettling to see the acceptance of diversity in Five Points fall to the forces of racism, tribalism and misogyny. When Mick (Kevin Dennis), an angry Irish immigrant who helps lead a protest that turns violent, says "People will follow me because I'm not afraid to say what they're thinking," there was an audible gasp of contemporary recognition from the audience.

Although Paradise Square needs some judicious cuts to its book, there is no denying its core conviction or the energy of its players. Choreographer Bill T. Jones's genius is on full display here: the mix of Irish step dance and African motifs interpreted through his imaginative, explosive movements are thrilling to watch. It's part "Riverdance," part uptown hip-hop. (But given the realities of Five Points—which was built around a pond that became a cesspool from the effluent the tanning industry dumped into it—perhaps "Sewerdance" may be a more fitting moniker.)

Despite the downbeat nature of its story, Paradise Square somehow manages to radiate a confidence and hope, reminding us of Santayana's famous aphorism that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It shows us the mistakes some of our ancestors made that we still have time to correct—a lesson of tolerance that America would do well to finally learn.

Paradise Square, February 24, 2019, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., with matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.. Tickets range from $28-$115. Tickets are available online at, or by calling the box office at 510-647-2949.