Guest review by Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Occasionally it raises a theater’s roof with the power of a musical like Paradise Square which opened last night at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theater.
Within the framework of an actual place, people, and an all but forgotten historical event from a century and a half ago, Paradise Square is as much a revelatory reflection of America today, as it is a lesson from our past. Simply put it is bold, heartbreaking, and glorious.
Set in 1863, the “Five Points,” a 20-block area of lower Manhattan, during the 19th century was by any measure the worst crime and disease-ridden slum in the City. But in that hard bitten place, Free Black Americans and their children along with Irish Americans and their immigrant relatives lived, worked, and married. They found racial harmony at “the bottom of the ladder” recognizing they wanted the same things, to feed and care for their families; and enjoyed the same things, good music and dancing at the local tavern.
Paradise Square is the name of the fictitious tavern within the historical setting where the greed of Capitalists comes to turn the races against each other for their profit.
If this doesn’t ring familiar to the present, then look a little closer.
To its great credit, Paradise Square is not preachy, or just another painful “race in America” reckoning. Rather, book writers Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan show how we lived together when our nation fought a civil war and what was and is really dividing us. They address many of the racial and social issues with their storytelling that we struggle with ourselves. In those moments, they leave the audience feeling, “Oh, now I get it.”
With music by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (of the American Celtic rock band Black 47) and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare, Paradise Square’s score is a soaring blend of period and ethnic melodies augmented with a contemporary sensibility. At first, the “period pop sound” (think Frank Wildhorn done better) felt out of place; but as the present-day themes began to reveal themselves, the hybrid proved apropos.
At a time when Broadway seems to have lost its mind with endless jukebox, mixtape bio-musicals, the score of Paradise Square is not only a welcome relief, but rapturous and enthralling.
Since its premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2019 and an out-of-town tryout in Chicago last fall, a wagon full of songs have been cut, new ones added and cut again. What’s left is a brilliant score where nearly ever song lands perfectly, some make you want to hear them again, and one, one glorious one, makes you want to buy another ticket and come back for it alone.
I won’t say which song because you don’t see it coming and it brings the audience to its feet. That’s another great joy of Paradise Square, the unexpected, (something you don’t get with movies turned musicals) and there’s plenty. It makes reviewing a production difficult, but a show that’s worked this hard to setup reveals and takes the audiences breath away deserves the respect of no spoilers.
It’s not often that dance is part of the narrative in a musical, but when it is, all the better. In the hands of legendary choreographer, Bill T. Jones it’s enthralling.
From Irish step dancing to what we know today as African American Stepping, which has its origins in enslaved Africans expressing themselves artistically, and the cross-over between them, Jones brings a visceral authenticity to Paradise Square.
He has created moments of great jubilance and excitement, and then simple movements so full of grace, they nearly bring you to tears. There are times on stage when you realize intellectually that his choreography has come from a place of deep cultural meaning, and though you may not know what it is, emotionally you feel it profoundly.
Heading up the powerhouse forty-person cast is Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly O’Brien, proprietress of Paradise Square. Anyone who saw her in the original Broadway run of Slave Play knows the depth and raw force she brings to a role. Now she’s using her singing voice too and the Barrymore Theatre is lucky to still be standing.
The dynamic duo of dancing are Sidney DuPont as Washington Henry and A.J. Shively as Owen Duignan. A man who has escaped slavery and a new immigrant who find commonality in their talent for dancing and it is spectacular. By contrast the passion and pathos they bring to their respective stories is gut-wrenching.
It’s rare that a musical speaks to our national conversation in the moment, on point, and with the brilliance of Paradise Square. It looks back from today and forward from then; it makes us look at ourselves, but most of all look at each other – with humanity and hope. To quote Paradise Square:
“A 150 years ago, a group of Americans lived in the future.
That future has yet to be realized.”
Paradise Square website and tickets HERE .
Lawrence Pfeil, Jr., is a freelance writer/playwright who has written for media outlets including The Randy Report, the New York Blade, and Edge Publications. You can follow him at TheOUTfront.com.