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.
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.
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.