All in “Paradise Squareis true. Nothing in “Paradise Square” is true.
Yes, history shows that in 1863, after Abraham Lincoln extended the Civil War draft to include all white men between the ages of 25 and 45 – black men being excepted because they were not considered citizens – mobs disgruntled Irish Americans rose up against blacks in New York, burning buildings and killing scores of people in their path.
And it’s true that in midtown Manhattan’s piano-like poor neighborhood called Five Points, black and Irish neighbors who lived together in relative harmony joined forces to resist the crowds.
But by pounding those large-scale events into individual stories and manipulating them so performers have reason to sing at full volume and dance almost nonstop, the uplifting, star-studded, overworked new musical, which debuted Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, turns history upside down. Racism becomes an individual character flaw instead of a systemic evil; resistance, the solitary moral genius of a hero.
In this case, the hero is Nelly O’Brien, or rather Joaquina Kalukango, who plays her with enough grit, stamina, and vocal bravery to make a character seem glued from the scraps of the story. Nelly owns a (fictional) Five Points bar and brothel called Paradise Square: “a little Eden” where, as one of Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare’s bald lyrics says in the title track, “We love who we want to love / without excuses.
Indeed, Nelly is married to Irish American Willie O’Brien (suitably beefy Matt Bogart). Her sister (and Nelly’s best friend), Annie Lewis (absurdly fierce Chilina Kennedy), is married to a black pastor, the Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley). When Annie’s nephew Owen (AJ Shively) arrives from Ireland, around the same time as Samuel, a station master on the Underground Railroad, brings Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont) to Paradise Square en route from Tennessee to Canada, the joint begins to look like a rooming house for incendiary plot points.
Most of the characters – and there are 10 main roles – look less like people and more like ideas with human masks. Willie’s war buddy, Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis), represents the Irish unemployed easily swayed by demagogic politicians. A white pianist and composer who turns plantation tunes into uptown hits (Jacob Fishel) represents, somewhat anachronistically, the problem of cultural appropriation – although it’s a good idea that some songs by Stephen Foster, like “Camptown Races”, be reappropriated in music by Jason Howland.
Another Foster song – “Oh! Susanna” – gets an even more interesting revamp, insidiously connecting the show’s versatile villain, Frederic Tiggens, as a fan of the Irish Rebellion, to racist tropes from the South. (The tune by Foster is reset with the lyrics “You were loyal to a country that was not loyal to you.”) Alas, none of Tiggens’ dialogue is so subtle; a loosely defined, determined “uptown party boss” to end the “depravity” of places like Paradise Square, it leaves performer John Dossett little to do, but metaphorically twirls his mustache.
If most of the score suffers from a slight case of overkill – concocting a series of generic rock ballads and throat-ripping anthems – both the book and the direction suffer from full accent. The book, attributed to Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, is particularly problematic. Based on Kirwan’s musical “Hard Times,” and seemingly heavily rewritten in nine years of development, it strips everything down to the bare essentials while trying to accommodate as many characters with a checklist of sensibilities.
I’m as much of a sucker as the next critic of liberal piety, and I appreciate the stance of a musical centered on black lives that has its heroine say, near the end, “We’re passing this story on to you on our own conditions. “But strong stances don’t make up for weak characterization or suggest why such strength is needed. That the position of the Irish and other white immigrants is not as effectively dramatized as that of the black characters is morally good but theatrically boring.
In this combination, I sense the meaty hand of producer Garth H. Drabinsky, who seems to have used his influence to mold “Paradise Square” in the image of his previous hits. Like 1998’s ‘Ragtime’ and the 1994 revival of ‘Show Boat’, it presents social unrest as the product of a few representative individuals and attempts to fill in the inevitable gaps with big sound and set design. It also borrows a famous plot device from “Show Boat” – which is effective here even if the debt otherwise remains unpaid.
But unlike those musicals, which were built on the frameworks of novels heavily written by authors with singular voices, “Paradise Square” seems almost authorless despite its many contributors, and the direction of Moisés Kaufman, known for his strong hand and its conceptual coherence, not little to erase the impression of anonymity. (The design elements are also simply effective.) Contingent and anxious, the show seems more interested in saying the right things than telling a cohesive story.
Wait – I take that back: it tells a cohesive story, in two ways. One is in the dance, which employs a kaleidoscopic of contextual styles, including step dancing for the Irish characters and Juba for the blacks, to explore, far more subtly than the book, the place where appropriation and joyful sharing meet. (So unlikely as a plot point, the dance between Owen and Washington is an emotional high point.) Again, many hands are at work here, with Bill T. Jones leading a team of musical staging by at least five other choreographers, but the result effectively scores its points.
The other source of consistency in “Paradise Square” is Kalukango, which somehow alchemizes the role’s remarkable difficulties into its characterization, making it incredible in a good way rather than a bad way. Having already seen her in the role of Cleopatra in “Antony and Cleopatra”, Nettie in “The Color Purple” and Kaneisha in “Slave Play”, I am not really surprised, but they were more successful writings. Nothing really prepares you for when an actor brings everything they’ve got on stage and basically writes down what needs to be said while you’re watching. It makes you want to make history.
At the Ethel Barrymore Theater, Manhattan; paradisesquaremusical.com. Duration: 2 hours and 40 minutes.