There are pleasures in “Paradise Square.” The terrific dancing tells its own story, a quintessential American (and Broadway) one: How African-American and Irish immigrant dancers learned from one another in New York and created a unique American art form — tap dancing.
It’s the flip side of one of the ugliest events in New York City history, the Draft Riots of 1863, in which poor white New Yorkers, mostly Irish immigrants upset about the new Civil War draft, targeted Black people, lynching an untold number, destroying their homes and businesses, leaving thousands homeless.
“Paradise Square” attempts to tackle this history in the epic musical tradition of “Ragtime” or “Les Miserables,” an oversized pageant that’s meant to be pointed and poignant. Some of this works. The huge cast is uniformly splendid, no one more so than Joaquina Kalukango in a star-making performance as the central character Nelly O’Brien, the proprietor of the Paradise Square bar and bordello in the 19th century neighborhood called Five Points, a notorious slum a few blocks from City Hall.
But “Paradise Square” was largely a disappointment. By the end of its overlong running time, it felt overcrowded and overbearing; its staging too often of the stand-in-a line-at-the-lip-of-the-stage-and-stare school of emoting; its score loud, strident and insistent — well-sung, but not especially memorable and not much integrated with the story; its story of dubious historical accuracy and by-the-numbers plotting.
Nelly, the daughter of an escaped slave, is married to an Irish immigrant Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart.) His sister Anna (Chilina Kennedy) is also in an interracial marriage, with the Rev. Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley.) This is meant to show the racial harmony that existed in Five Points before the riot. It is true that both poor Black people and impoverished Irish immigrants were forced into a neighborhood that one historian calls “a notorious breeding ground for disease, and a source of hefty profit for local landlords.” How well they got along is speculative.
Willie goes South to fight in an exclusively Irish immigrant Union regiment with his pal Lucky Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis) . At the same time, two young men arrive, escaping different forms of oppression — Owen Duignan (A J Shively), Anna and Willie’s nephew, fresh off the boat from Ireland, and Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), an escaped slave from Tennessee. New York is supposed to be just one stop on the Underground Railroad for Washington, but “me and my gal got separated after we escaped the plantation,” and he wants to wait until he can find her in the city.
Each young man gets his own song; both turn out to be terrific dancers, and wind up competing in a dance competition at Nelly’s bar.
Meanwhile, the villain of the piece,corrupt uptown politician Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett) is determined to destroy Nelly’s bar. “With the coloreds and the Irish united around the ballot it’s only a matter of time before they unite to fight for higher wages.”
It’s at this point that a city official announces that President Abraham Lincoln has imposed a draft for military service on all citizens and immigrants (but not Black people, who are not considered citizens), which wealthy people can avoid by paying $300 (a working man’s wages for an entire year.) Tiggens urges Lucky Mike, who has come back embittered from battle, to blame the Blacks, and Mike enlists Owen.
I had wondered how a stage musical would handle the Draft riots, which are more easily reenacted in fiction (such as “Paradise Alley” by Kevin Baker) and on film (such as Martin Scorcese’s “The Gangs of New York.”) I won’t give it away, except to say that it’s disappointing, and includes a show-stopping number by Nelly called “Let It Burn” that’s more of a showcase for Kalukango’s blistering talent than a logical thing for Nelly, fierce protector of the neighborhood and her bar, to say.
It is one of the several oddities in “Paradise Square.” Another: The songwriter Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel) is a character, going incognito under the pseudonym Milton Moore, and asking Nelly to hire him as a pianist – and so part of the score credited to Jason Howland includes his arrangements of two still-popular Foster songs, “Camptown Races,” and “Oh Susanna.” Another bafflement: Members of the creative team include some of the most talented theater artists in the business – such as director Moises Kaufman and choreographer Bill T. Jones — yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that this show was their day job; there was little sense of a singular artistic vision.
The answer to all this bafflement, is that “Paradise Square” began life a decade ago as “Hard Times,” a musical produced Off-Off Broadway about Stephen Foster by Larry Kirwan, Irish expatriate lead singer for the US rock band, Black 47. The heavy hand of lead producer Garth Drabinsky (Ragtime, Showboat), who is back on Broadway after an absence of two decades, explains why the show has morphed into a musical credited to two lyricists, three composers, three book writers, and what looks to be six choreographers.
Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Choreography Bill T. Jones, Musical Staging by Alex Sanchez; Associate Choreographer: Gelan Lambert; Co-Associate Choreographer: Chloe Davis; Irish and Hammerstep Choreography by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus;
Written by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, directed by Moisés Kaufman
Music by Jason Howland…Additional Music by Larry Kirwan; Inspired in part by the songs of Stephen Foster
Scenic design by Allen Moyer,costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by Jon Weston and projection design by Wendall K. Harrington.
Dramaturgy by Thulani Davis and Sydné Mahone.
Cast: Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Matt Bogart, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Kevin Dennis, Jacob Fishel, Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Josh Davis, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Kayla Pecchioni, Erica Spyres, Lael Van Keuren, Hailee Kaleem Wright