Set on the mean streets of Manhattan during the latter half of the Civil War, Paradise Square isn't the first musical to examine how people of different races, cultures and socioeconomic status come together in New York City. Evoking elements of shows like Ragtime, West Side Story and Hamilton, Paradise Square often finds its own voice by way of pastiche. In its pre-Broadway run in Chicago, it's a show with potential—and with plenty of room for improvement.
The narrative revolves around a cast of characters who gather at the titular bar, located in the Lower Manhattan slums known as the Five Points. Owned by a freeborn Black woman named Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango), the tavern serves as a meeting place (and dance floor) for the neighborhood’s Black and Irish residents. When her Irish husband (Matt Bogart) goes off to fight in the war, Nelly welcomes an escaped slave (Sidney DuPont), a young Irish immigrant (A.J. Shivley) and a mysterious piano player (Jacob Fishel) into the bar, just as tensions between the neighborhood’s denizens begin to boil over.
The number of characters to keep track of approaches the level of a contemporary HBO drama, and it’s the management of their various narratives (or lack thereof) that often causes Paradise Square to falter. The show’s villain (John Dossett) has little to do except represent the well-heeled residents of Manhattan and their dislike for the residents of the Five Points. Similarly, a character based on songwriter Stephen Foster only seems to be present on the fringes of the plot so that his catalog of songs can be interpolated.
Despite boasting reinterpretations of familiar tunes like “Camptown Races” and “Oh Susanna,” Paradise Square is short on musical numbers that are truly memorable. It’s not until well into the second act that the show’s standout number “Breathe Easy” is performed, shortly before Kalukango belts out the impactful (if a little on the nose) anthem “Let it Burn.” Considering how much of a vocal powerhouse Kalukango is, it’s telling that her talents feel underutilized in the musical’s current iteration.
Character and score issues notwithstanding, Paradise Square finds its footing when it’s channeling the spectacle and emotion befitting of a big-budget Broadway production. Acclaimed choreographer Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!) combines tap dancing, African American juba dancing and Irish step dancing, creating kinetic routines that highlight the cultural commonalities and differences among the cast of characters. A dance competition during the second act is a highlight of the show, if only because it justifies a splashy, extended sequence of toe tapping, chest slapping and acrobatic feats.
In its present form, Paradise Square is an entertaining yet uneven tale of a multicultural community confronting inequality in America. Laced with references to racial tensions, class divisions and the power of activism, it’s a production that draws clear parallels between the nation’s past and present struggles. But, much like the discourse surrounding the issues it addresses, this Broadway-bound production often ends up feeling messy and oblique. There’s enough here to make musical fans happy—and with some tinkering (and a few more rousing anthems), it’s not difficult to imagine Paradise Square transforming into a must-see theatrical event.