History Eludes Musical’s Big Reach – Deadline

Paradise Square makes quite the reach. A musical about the build-up to New York’s horrific Draft Riots of 1863 reaches the past to tell us about the present. It reaches across cultures to tell us about assimilation and appropriation. It reaches across styles of music and dance to celebrate diversity and commonality. It reaches to contain both epic realism and mythical nostalgia. And somewhere along the line it reaches a point of no return, when all that reaching just wears itself out.

The musical, tonight opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, is big in a way that calls back to the Cameron Mackintosh productions of the 1980s and their ’90s Broadway offspring like Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman – those latter two courtesy of Garth Drapinsky, the producer attempting a comeback with Paradise Square after some financial flim-flam landed him in a Canadian prison; he was paroled in 2013 after serving 17 months.

Directed by the great Moisés Kaufman, Paradise Square entices in its opening moments when projected film of modern-day New York gives way to the immense, multi-level 19th Century tavern and dance hall that gives the musical its name.

Our guide to the past is the saloon owner Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango, last seen on Broadway in Slave Play). The Black wife of a white Irishman named Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart), Nelly runs an establishment that seems to live up to its name, offering a sort of paradise where the Black and Irish neighbors of the rough-and-tumble Five Points area can find camaraderie and entertainment with seemingly little intrusion of the racism that’s elsewhere tearing the country in half. Indeed, the marriage of Nelly and Willie is only one of two racially mixed relationships here: Willie’s white Irish-Catholic sister Annie (Chilina Kennedy) is married to the Black, Protestant Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley).

Sidney DuPont, AJShively
Kevin Berne

If this racial harmony seems a bit on the Edenic side, or at the very least ahistorical to our modern understanding of the era, we accept the lily-gilding in part because the very name of the tavern (and musical) puts both enterprises in a realm as metaphoric as historic. Characters often speak in blunt, awkward, exposition-heavy phrases that teeter between fable and plain old bad writing: “Paradise Square saloon owned by Nelly Freeman,” says the corrupt, top-hat wearing political boss Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett) as he arrives on stage. Lacking only a money bag with a $ sign on it to complete his Monopoly Man get-up, this Simon Legree without a mustache makes no secret of his desire to close down Paradise Square. “She’s created a haven of social depravity and political ascension,” he continues. “Never have so many Irish voted against us. My strategy is seeded here, gentlemen.”

In case we don’t full comprehend his villainy, Nelly greets Tiggens thusly: “The Uptown party boss who torments the Five Points. I know who you are.”

If you’ve started to discern some old Silent Movie melodrama here, fasten your seatbelts. Tiggens has ginned up some fines against the tavern that he knows will put the venue out of business. The tavern’s solution: Put on a show. More specifically, an old-fashioned Irish dance contest, with the Irish and Black communities getting a chance to show off their respective stuff. The raised money will save the saloon, with enough left over to pay the winning dancer $300 – the exact amount needed to buy one’s way out of the newly announced, and very unpopular, Civil War draft. (A draft, that, not without ramifications, excludes Black men.)

Entering the contest are two newly arrived saloon habitués: Owen Duignan (AJ Shively), the just-off-the-boat nephew of the Irish Annie and Willie, and a young man who goes by the name Washington Henry and has escaped Southern enslavement the Underground Railroad. Aided by the Reverend and Nelly -neither of whom know the runaway’s full story – young Washington quickly endears himself to the Paradise family, even to the point of friendship with his dance rival Owen.

Finally, there’s one more character, newly arrived, who’ll have a big impact on life at the Paradise: A mysterious, drunken piano player and songwriter who calls himself Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel) and has an uncanny knack for playing the Stephen Foster tunes that, with their romantic glorifications of plantation life, are the most unwelcome in Nelly’s establishment.

So that, then, is the set-up. A tenuous peace exists in this place where everybody knows your name, or thinks they do, and one or two unearthed skeletons will be enough to strike the match that will set Five Points aflame.

But before we get there, we’ll have plenty of music and dancing, courtesy of many musical chefs. Music by Jason Howland (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), and lyrics by Nathan Tysen (Amelie) and Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding) provide the bulk of the anthemic and rather bombastic score, with just enough Celtic and Blues undertones to distinguish the songs from generic Broadway showtunes. Additional music by Larry Kirwan, lead singer of Irish punk band Black 47, provides some fresh spins on the Stephen Foster tunes that initially formed the basis for Paradise Square during its development.

In fact, some bluntly stated distancing from Foster’s music infuses Paradise Square With no small amount of anachronistic debate over cultural appropriation – arguments that would have been so much more enticing if the musical was self-reflective enough to consider its own many artistic liftings. One waits in vain for some good-faith discussion that teases out the difference between the theft of appropriation and the artistic enlargement of cross-pollination. Such nuance never arrives. Easier to cast one man as the clueless art thief whose musical success creates a template for cultural plundering for centuries to come.

In fact, Paradise Squarewith a book by Christina Anderson (Good Goods, Inked BabyCraig LucasThe Light in the Piazza) and Kirwan – excellent writers one and all – has an unfortunate, even disastrous, tendency to lay blame on its cartoon villains rather than the murky depths of its good-natured common folk. Mr. Monopoly all but single-handedly rouses the white Immigrant rabble to riot against the Draft, at first by convincing them that they’re being asked to fight a rich man’s war – Trump’s got nothing on Frederick for phony populism – and only later turning the railed -up rioters against their Black neighbors. It doesn’t take much squinting – or bad faith both-sides justifications – to see what Paradise Square hopes to do here: Maintain its commitment to some sort of pre-corruption racial “paradise” by explaining away the murderous rampages of the white Irish mobs against Black New Yorkers by suggesting that even good guys like Owen simply got swept up in Mr. Money Bag’s Machiavellian mendacity.

Chilina Kennedy, Joaquina Kalukango
Kevin Berne

Paradise Square comes very close to saving itself from its own impulses – not least from a theatrically disappointing climax of a brief, unterrifying and bloodless riot – by giving star Kalukango the evening’s single greatest moment of glory: a powerhouse anthem of anger and defiance called “Let It Burn,” in which this wonderful singer castigates the rioters and the destroyers and taunts that the human spirit can survive the destruction of ramshackle structures. As a battle tactic, “Let It Burn” falls a good deal short, but as a vocal exercise for an astonishing singer, the number is a treasure (and might very well hand Kalukango a Tony Award nomination that might otherwise have missed her).

Other performers have their stand-out moments too, notably Shively and DuPont as the friendly, if desperate, dance rivals. Choreographer Bill T. Jones favors traditional Irish stepdance for Shively, and for DuPont leans heavy into both African Juba, with its rhythmic stomping and slapping, and Nicholas Brothers-style tap. Historical authenticity is beside the point: Jones also infuses his own brand of avant garde balletic movements into the mix, a blend that can be thrilling at times and just confounding at others.

This clash of styles and signifiers can be observed elsewhere: A saintly lesbian couple arrives out of nowhere near the end, their characters unexplored and used merely as a contemporary prop. More damaging is Kaufman’s apparent direction of actor Chilina Kennedy to play the role of the feisty and frequently onstage Irish Annie in such a loud, broadly comic style that the character seems less related to the O’Briens of Paradise Square than the Oakleys of Annie Get Your Gun. If Broadway stages a revival of that musical anytime soon, it need look no farther for its rootin’ tootin’ gal.

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