I wish I could say that the pre-Broadway engagement of “Paradise Square” at the Nederlander Theatre is the sure-fire hit it could be.
The musical developed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2019 and bound for the Big Apple in early spring 2022 tackles an important historical event, one that isn't as well-known as it should be and comes complete with contemporary resonances. The high-profile creatives have poured their all into the script, songs and dances drawing on many issues and styles of the period. And the amount of talent in the ensemble of 30 is phenomenal.
But at the moment the storytelling is muddled, keeping track of the many characters can be challenging and even songs ranging from Celtic tunes to spirituals that start out beautifully end up swelling into anthems that are far too similar. The dancing choreographed by Bill T. Jones is mostly terrific, but there's so much of it that the whole evening has a frenetic quality, as if nobody really trusted the material to hold up without overkill. In addition, there are plot points that make little or no sense, and politically correct posturing that seems designed to preempt criticism in our ultra-sensitive times.
Part of the problem may be too many people involved in the process, which started with an original concept by Larry Kirwan, founder of the American Celtic rock band Black 47. He's credited with writing the book, along with Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley and Craig Lucas. Kirwan also gets a nod for “additional music” inspired by the songs of Stephen Foster, which turn up in whole or in part, jazzed up as often as not. The main composer is Jason Howland with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. Howland also is responsible for the orchestrations and music direction, while Alex Sanchez did the musical staging. Moisés Kaufman directed the production.
The story revolves around Five Points, the notorious Lower Manhattan slum, in the early 1860s. It's introduced by a Black woman in period costume (by Toni-Leslie James) standing in front of what appear to be modern-day projections (by Wendall K. Harrington) of the gentrified neighborhood, a framing flashback device not referred to again until the end of the evening.
The woman is Nelly Freeman O'Brien (powerhouse Joaquina Kalukango) who quickly takes us back to the musical's namesake saloon she owns in Five Points in 1863, a time during the Civil War when Irish immigrants escaping the Great Famine lived side-by-side, intermarried and shared cultures with free-born Black Americans and those escaping slavery. Nelly is married to Irishman Willie O'Brien (Matt Bogart), who willingly goes off to war in the first scene and isn't seen again except as a ghost, while she runs the bar with her Irish Catholic sister-in-law Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), an equally strong woman who is married to a Black man, Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley).
This schematic approach continues with two other main characters. Annie's relative Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively, a fabulous dancer with a lilting tenor) has just arrived from Ireland seeking a better life. Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), an escaped slave who we later learn killed his master, begs the Reverend to harbor him while he awaits the arrival of his beloved, Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton in an underwritten role) from whom he was separated during the escape.
The other important denizen of the saloon is Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), an out-of-work songwriter who turns up apparently drunk looking for a job that Nelly gives him on a trial basis. Only at the beginning of the second act — after a long first act — do we learn that he is really Stephen Foster (who really did live in Five Points), but the main reason for his inclusion is to give him a good drubbing for appropriating African American music and misrepresenting slave life.
The heavies of the piece are Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), the bigoted anti-abolitionist political boss determined to bring Nelly down, and “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis), Willie's buddy who returns from war missing an arm and filled with resentment towards a country he feels betrayed him. Sparking that resentment is the first Federal Draft instituted by President Lincoln to support the Union Army, leading — in the law of unintended consequences — to the deadly New York Draft Riots of July 1863. Two things exacerbated the conflict: Black people couldn't be drafted because they weren't yet citizens, and the wealthy could buy their way out of the draft with $300 or by finding a substitute.
Before the racial equilibrium shatters and Five Points goes up in flames, we get a look at the lively dance contests supporting the belief that tap dancing was born in the 'hood from the conjunction of Irish step dancing and Black American Juba. Actually, we get two looks, which need to be differentiated more. Both are dance-offs between Owen and Washington, informally in the first act and more formally in the second, when Nelly holds a contest at the bar to pay off fines levied by Teggens. The prize is $300, which would enable Owen to buy his way out of the army, but Washington wants it to start his new life with Angelina.
Although the dancing is stunning, the plotting is problematic. Washington shows up begging to compete just when Owen is about to be awarded the prize, and Nelly lets him even though all along she and the Reverend have insisted that he stay out of sight. Not only are there wanted posters of him up all over town, her enemy Tiggens is in the audience and knows all about Washington, and Nelly knows Tiggens knows. She also knows she'll get arrested for harboring Washington, so it's a mystery why she lets him perform rather than, say, just giving him some money for his trip. It's also a mystery why Tiggens doesn't arrest Washington at this point or any other.
The number that brought down the house on opening night was the penultimate “Let It Burn,” though I'm not sure if it was Kalukango's performance or the message or both that caused the standing ovation. One of my favorites was the spiritual-inspired “Breathe Easy,” though I wish it had stayed in quiet mode.
Despite the hyperactive first few routines, “Paradise Square” didn't start to sizzle for me until Shively's Owen started step dancing. After that, it was off and on. Between the formulaic elements and sources of confusion, I was never as fully captivated as I should have been. Hopefully, the issues can be fixed before the Big Apple. One lesson for the creators to consider: Less is more.