You are currently viewing Historical Friction – a review of Paradise Square

Historical Friction – a review of Paradise Square

The center cannot hold for Paradise Square

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, you’re likely familiar with the Five Points, the erstwhile crime-ridden Lower Manhattan neighborhood. It is also a place where some residents protected each other while others poached and poked, until they could resist no more and finally fought back. Paradise Square, the new production that just opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, sets this nineteenth century unrest to a wide array of music and dance. It’s a show that pushes up against real issues, both historical and contemporary, but one that cannot muster the courage of its dramatic convictions.

The show is set in 1863, as the bloody Civil War continues to punish the severely divided country, and the Paradise Square Saloon serves not only as the social hub for Blacks and Irish immigrants to congregate together but as a veritable mixing bowl. Proprietor Nelly Freeman O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango) is Black and married to Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart) an Irishman serving with the Fighting 69th. They share their home with Willie’s sister, Annie (Chilina Kennedy), who is married to the Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley) and operate a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves get to Canada. Both women being amalgamationists, they share a unique bond.

Circumstances intensify when Annie’s nephew, Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively), emigrates from Ireland to live with his New York-based just as Annie and the Reverend Samuel take in Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont). Washington is an escapee from a Tennessee plantation who, instead of continuing to flee northward, makes the difficult choice to stay put until he is reunited with his love, Angelina (Gabrielle McClinton). The Reverend opts to hide Washington at Paradise Square, where he’ll have to share small quarters with Owen. The two roommates reflect opposite sides of a growing schism for the disenfranchised: resentment continues to grow among the white dock workers who fear they are losing their jobs to Black men while also fearing the military draft – which they can buy their way out of for $300, a sum that towers higher than most men’s yearly income. 

The show’s canvas continues to grow with a few not-so-good men who cause trouble from the side: corrupt politician Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), Willie’s embittered Civil War veteran “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis), who lost an arm battling for the Confederacy, and Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), an enigmatic, alcoholic composer that Nelly employs to tickle the ivories at the saloon. In case we don’t get that Tiggens will prove to be a major threat, Nelly greets Tiggens with this: “The Uptown party boss who torments the Five Points. I know who you are.” But the show will even let him off the hook, too.

This cast-of-thousands approach isn’t only found onstage. Apparently, it took a village of scribes to bring it to life as well. Paradise Square was initially conceived by Larry Kirwan in a musical play entitled Hard Times (working with the Irish musician Kirwan; the show’s then-primary focus was on Foster), who worked on the book with Christina Anderson and Craig Lucas, as well as Marcus Gardley out of town. Kirwin and Jason Howland did the music, which also lifts from Stephen Foster; lyrics were provided by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. And they aren’t all working in concert here – instead, the multiple voices have led to a show with distinct threads that never really entwine, and unlike obvious forebears like Ragtime and Show Boat, they rarely touch the true gravitas driving every character’s plotline, particularly when addressing the notions of race, class and discrimination. 

Washington and Owen should share a growing rivalry – they are continually in competition, even, literally, for the same space. But Paradise Square wants its characters to play nice, even as they face the direst of straits. And so they resolve their differences through a couple of dance-offs, a pair of Chekhov’s guns that never fire. But this type of enmity is something that not all of the Black juba or Irish stepping in the world can resolve, even if it, too, has been conceived by a group of choreographers that includes the team of Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus and the legendary Bill T. Jones. And just about every dramatic note, low or high, gets a dance number – the show contains so much dance I think it’s only missing the Manson trio. Credit must be paid Coleman and Colin Barkell, who emerge out of the ensemble to help with the Irish hoofing. They do it masterfully – though it should be said that Shively more than holds his own.

The show also offers up Black characters singing about wanting the chance to fight in battle for a country they know won’t grant them equal rights even when the fighting is done. Much of the action centers around a dance competition at the saloon that will bring in enough money to save the bar and provide the lucky winner with enough cash to buy himself out of the conscription, forcing our protagonists to make head-scratching choices just to keep them in the show, and raising the question of which stories merit the most emphasis. Owen, whose predicament, associations with other characters and ultimate choices, should emerge as the lead character, but the show relegates his choices to the background to build up Nelly, who is actually an inessential character with little effect on the action. She’s given an attempt at an eleventh-hour number, “Let It Burn, ” designed to bring the audience to their feet without meriting it. Kalukango belts out a number to no one in particular – not the people in the bar nor the ones out there threatening it, both sides of which carry on their destructive battle while she sings, in a fugue state, in some other celestial plane. (Don’t question it – it doesn’t matter.) According to dramaturgical syntax, this character lifts right out, a hollow center feigning real gravitas. When authenticity fails, the show just turns up the volume.

Other moments prove that the show would have benefited from a creative team that worked smarter, not harder. One important scene in which we learn of a character’s death is immediately followed by the revelation of someone else’s secret – the demise doesn’t have a chance to resonate. A different character unveils something important, and it plays as a mere information dump. And yet we also get a major tangent involving the women, apparently a couple, who have rescued Angelina with no dramatic obstacle, seemingly just an opportunity for some politically correct theatrical back-patting. 

With an ensemble this bag, some of the cast acquit themselves better than others, especially since they have to fight against a book that strips them of nuance. Though underused, both Bogart and Kennedy are strong vocally, both accent and in song; DuPont can dance great when Washington has to hoof it, but he struggles mightily to convince in the book scenes. Stampley and Shively are the show’s true standouts (Shively also proves to be a more graceful dancer than his cohorts). It’s a shame the musical’s myriad book writers could not have figured out a way to focus more on them and their dilemmas, since they drive so much of the plot and contain the only sense of complication here.

Director Moisés Kaufman seems to have focused more on Paradise Square’s technical elements than in taming the shows human element, and at least in that regard, he scores: Allen Moyer’s triple-tier set (itself evocative of Ragtime, too) certainly moves well, and Donald Holder’s lighting design provides the right shading and color for the show, although a big LED  unit seems to contradict the scheme he has devised. Additionally, Toni-Leslie James has designed a believable range of period costumes that justify each level of social strata seen.

But that technical eye for detail simply has not been applied elsewhere throughout the narrative. Paradise Square should be a dark show that builds in rancor and violence; only after it all erupts should a sense of catharsis emerge. Instead, the show has opted for a Pollyanna approach that does no one any favors, a nearly three-hour bear hug that dodges some of the true cruelty and pain of the era it depicts. Why tell the tale of so many brave people if you want to tell a story this cowardly?

Paradise Square

Ethel Barrymore Theatre