Gloriously Overstuffed 'Paradise Square' Looks to be a Hit

by Iris Fanger

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday November 26, 2021
Originally published on November 22, 2021

Lights come up for "Paradise Square," the gloriously overstuffed new musical running at Chicago's Nederlander Theatre through December 5th, on a film of a busy street in contemporary New York. Crowds in modern dress walk briskly along cement sidewalks backed by tall brick buildings and street signs.

Before you think we are in modern times, a lone, live figure in period dress enters and begins to sing. We have been taken back to the 1860s in the midst of the Civil War. She is Nelly O'Brien (Joaquina Kalukango, in a star-making turn), a freed African American woman who is both the proprietress of the tavern, Paradise Square, at the center of New York's Five Points neighborhood, and narrator of the show. The prejudices and obstacles that beset Nelly and her neighbors — African-Americans living side by side with the recently arrived Irish immigrants — are as pervasive as those that roil our nation today, clearly the underlying message.

In development for nearly a decade, "Paradise Square" has morphed from an initial off-Broadway premiere as "Hard Times" (2012), conceived by Larry Kirwan, to the Berkeley Rep version under the current title (2019), to this mega-production, headed for previews in late February and a New York opening in March, produced by Garth H. Drabinsky in his bid to return to Broadway theater.

The sprawling musical incorporates a hugely talented cast of 38 performers, a 14-piece pit orchestra conducted by the lead composer of the score, Jason Howland, and an over-sized, ever-moving, three-story setting of rickety wooden tenements, designed by Allen Moyer. The whole of it is under the direction of Moises Kaufman, with choreography credited to Bill T. Jones among others, who deliver an evening shot through with more dance than the musical stage has seen for years.

Based on historical fact, the Five Points area in Lower Manhattan was home to a mix of people who got along with each other, even to the point of intermarriage. "Paradise Square" mirrors their peaceful co-existence until the devastating 1863 Civil War draft riots, which separated the races, spurred on by politicians who were fearful of their combined power. The two groups — blacks and the Irish — express in song and dance the through line of the relationships more succinctly than the muddled book (by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan).

The two lead couples — Nelly who is married to the Irishman, Willie O'Brien (Matt Bogart), and his sister, Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), wed to the black man, Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley) — personify the hopes and disasters that befall the neighborhood. Nelly and Annie are the proprietors of the tavern where the locals gather. There's a scene of a bravura dance-off between the escaped enslaved man, Washington Henry (in a dynamite performance by Sidney DuPont), who's being protected by Nelly, and Owen Duignan (the engaging A.J. Shively), who is just off the boat from Ireland. DuPont's' fluid torso and mix of moves from tap, jazz, contemporary and African-infused dance presents a contrast to Duignan, who stays upright over the flashing feet and leaps of Irish Step Dancing, in competition for the prize.

The ensemble is no less adroit, performing the vivid choreography that laces together the disparate plot-lines and characters. Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus, the world-class, medal-winning dancers, are credited with creating the Irish Step Dancing as well as performing at the head of the ensemble. Gelan Lambert and Chloe Davis (also in the cast) served as associate choreographers to Jones.

As if these stories are not enough, Henry is also seeking his lover, Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton), whom he lost on the perilous escape North. Angelina is helped on her journey by a same-sex female couple who are shown, in one brief scene, snuggling on stage, but never figure again.

Another major character, the villainous politician Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), tries to ruin Nelly and her tavern. His wife, Amelia (Erica Spyres), appears in two scenes that establish the wide divide between the haves and the have-nots. And to overload the cats-cradle of characters, Stephen Foster, in an alias identity, takes a job as pianist at Paradise Square. Howland, helped by Kirwan, has mixed references to some of Foster's songs into his original score, bringing up the side issue of cultural appropriation of the African American music.

While the plot-lines need sorting, and some of the characters are presented in out-lines, there's no doubt that "Paradise Square" will be a big hit. The memorable moments, include Kalukango's breath-taking rendition of the 11 o'clock number, "Let It Burn," the entertainment values of the spectacle elements — costumes, scenery, masses of singing and dancing characters — a stage-filling set, and a new score, underlined by the relevance to contemporary America. Like the folks of 19th century New York, we have not solved the ongoing divides of racism, the integration of immigrants, or provided the equality for all that's the foundation of a true democracy.

"Paradise Square" continues through December 5 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago. For further information, follow this link.

"Paradise Square" begins previews at the Barrymore Theatre in New York City on February 22, 2022. For more information, visit the show's website.