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Paradise Square

  • Theater, Musicals
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Paradise Square
Photograph: Courtesy Kevin BerneParadise Square

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Broadway review by Adam Feldman

Paradise Square is a square peg of a Broadway musical, and it spends much of its time in different round holes. On one hand, this ambitious but amorphous show is a wide-ranging historical period piece  about life and strife in Lower Manhattan’s violent Five Points district during the Civil War, as experienced by clashing groups of New Yorkers: white people, Black people, immigrants from places like Ireland and Germany. On another hand, it is a melodrama about couples and families torn apart by slavery, war and mustache-twirling villains. On yet another hand, or perhaps a foot, it is a Mickey-and-Judy story about a struggling local business that tries to keep its creditors at bay by mounting…a dance-off! As Paradise Square tries to juggle its weighty subject matter on these various appendages, you can sense it straining to keep its balance. 

The show on which Paradise Square is based, Larry Kirwan’s Hard Times, focused on the life and music of the 19th-century songwriter Stephen Foster; elements of that version remain in vestigial form, but the new book—credited to Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Kirwan—shifts the focus toward a group of fictional characters. At its core is Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango), the Black owner of a good-time joint called Paradise Square, which caters to a racially mixed crowd. Her husband (Matt Bogart) and his sister, Annie (a vivid Chilina Kennedy), are Irish immigrants, soon to be joined in America by their high-stepping nephew, Owen (A.J. Shively). Annie’s husband, known as Reverend (Nathaniel Stampley), is also Black and is involved with the Underground Railroad—under whose aegis he is helping Joah (Sidney DuPont) and Angelina (Gabrielle McClinton) evade capture after killing their abusive slavemaster. The serpent in this prelapsarian garden of racial integration is a bitter, one-armed veteran named Lucky Mike (Kevin Dennis), who throws his lot in with an evil uptown party boss (John Dossett) to sow division and discord among the lower classes.

Director Moisés Kaufman stages all of the above with a sense of grave pageantry that gets a solid assist from Allen Moyer’s rotating set and Toni-Leslie James’s rich array of petticoats and vests. It’s a handsome production, with a talented and notably large cast; the exciting dance sequences, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, are among the show’s highlights, though one senses a missed opportunity in depicting the cross-pollination of Irish step dancing and Black tap traditions. (Even in the aforementioned dance-off—in which Owen and Joah compete to win money they each need badly—the Irish and Black camps stay largely separate, West Side Story style, and Joah’s movement seems decidedly modern.) The problem is that the writing doesn’t support the spectacle, yielding a ponderous hash of good intentions that often feels like a training-wheels version of Ragtime. The disjointed script hops among scenes and tones, and while one understands the impetus behind ditching Foster’s catchy but plantation-flavored songs, the score that has replaced them—by Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare—is mostly unmemorable. The thrilling exception that proves the rule is Nelly’s final number, “Let It Burn.” Like Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple, Kalukango keeps her performance at a slow and steady smolder for most of Paradise Square, then flares out with deep emotional force. Her heat is infectious: The crowd rises up, finally inflamed. 

Paradise Square. Ethel Barrymore Theatre (Broadway). Book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lukas and Larry Kirwan. Music by Jason Howland. Lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. Directed by Moisés Kaufman. With Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, John Dossett, Matt Bogart, Gabrielle McClinton. Running time: 2hrs 35mins. One intermission. 

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Paradise Square | Photograph: Courtesy Kevin Berne

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


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