Chilina Kennedy and Joaquina Kalukango in Paradise Square (Photo by Kevin Berne)

‘Paradise Square’ review: An ambitious yet overdrawn historic epic

Juan Michael Porter II
Juan Michael Porter II

Paradise Square, the new Broadway musical, is blessed with a cast of powerhouse singers, Jason Howland's lovely score, and enough action for three separate shows. Unfortunately, that's part of the show's problem. Written by Larry Kirwan, Christina Anderson, and Craig Lucas, the show's book is saddled with so many characters with so many ambitions that three hours is not enough time to resolve their issues.

From racism to immigrant rights, murder, capitalism, and worker's rights, the plethora of problems the show tries to address leads to an overdrawn production. Given its narrative contrivances and refusal to give any of the issues enough focus, the show struggles to accomplish its goals.

We open with Nelly O'Brien née Freeman (Tony Award-nominee Joaquina Kalukango) speaking directly to the audience about the history of Manhattan's Five Points neighborhood. The saloon Paradise Square is the area's communal center, and Nelly inherited the place from her father, a runaway kidnapped African. Nelly tells us that she will reveal the true and forgotten history of her community.

She is married to Willie O'Brien (Matt Bogart), an Irish immigrant fighting against the South in the Civil War. His sister, Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy) is married to Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley). Like Nellie's father, Reverend Lewis escaped slavery and made a good life for himself in New York.

The family's Irish nephew, Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively) arrives from their famine-strangled home country in search of opportunity on the same day that a plantation runaway contacts Reverend Lewis. (Lewis is a member of the Underground Railroad and helps shepherd runaways from the South to Canada.)

Rather than continue to safety, this runaway, who is renamed Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), insists that he stay in New York until he can reconnect with his wife, Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton). The two were separated while making their escape.

Meanwhile, Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), a wealthy Southern sympathizer wants to destroy Nellie's saloon because it's where freed Black people and Irish immigrants consort, which goes against his desire to exploit poor laborers. He finds a pawn in "Lucky" Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis), who has returned home after losing an arm in the war and is now unable to find work.

After it is announced that all white men between the ages of 25 and 45 will be drafted for the war, regardless of their immigration status, Lucky ignites a racist fervor against the "coloreds" who took Irish jobs and refuse to fight for their own freedom ― even though people of color are barred from serving. All of this occurs within the first act.

Paradise Square presents an incredibly sophisticated story, but ultimately, the show doesn't fully process its nuance. For example, while presenting the sticky issue of banning Black men from military service while white Irish immigrant men are forced to serve, the show pivots to the news of a character's death without completely addressing the issue.

When the issue of harboring the runaway slave Washington comes up, rather than send him onto the next safehouse (as happened frequently with runaways before the Emancipation Proclamation), Nellie allows him to stay after he explains that he killed his former master to protect his wife―even though this explanation makes getting him out of town, and away from the bounty on his head, even more urgent. He stays for a while and then goes to find his wife, but after leaving safely, Washington returns a few scenes later to participate in a dance, for no other reason than to set off the next dramatic bomb.

The audience at the performance I attended gasped at this moment. It seems, having characters behave against their own best interests and with minimal explanation is the only way that the authors can keep the action moving. Kaufman's direction and Allen Moyer's cramped scenic design do little to help the show's overstuffed nature. Rather, they keep the proceedings peddling in place like a hamster on an exercise wheel.

Among the company's many vocal standouts, Kalukango's voice is an embarrassment of riches. A true singing actress on par with Audra McDonald or Kelli O'Hara, her gloriously plush mezzo soprano blends seamlessly from crystalline bell tones to rafter shaking belts, while making sense of Nathan Tysen's and Masi Asare's banal pop lyrics as if they were Shakespearean text. 

The show climaxes with the Draft Riots of 1863, a real historical event that deserves to be told.  Those riots left 119 people dead, 2,000 people injured. This tragedy reduced the city's Black population by a quarter, and demolished the Black homes and businesses of the Five Points neighborhood with approximately $16.9 million - $84.7 million worth of property damage in today's money.

Martin Scorsese's The Gangs of New York, as well as Herbert Asbury's book of the same name covered this history, albeit from a decidedly white perspective. In telling their more inclusive version, Kirwan, Anderson, and Lucas do audiences no favors. Perhaps a future version of this music will cut the book in half and focus on a more manageable set of storylines.  

Paradise Square is running on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre. Book Paradise Square tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Chilina Kennedy and Joaquina Kalukango in Paradise Square (Photo by Kevin Berne)

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