By Barry Reszel
Telling the story of “a group of people who lived in a future yet to be realized” is the heady narrative responsibility the newly-minted Paradise Square musical declares for itself. Thankfully for appreciative audiences, the challenge is taken on by a distinguished Broadway creative team and the very best triple-threat talents to be found on any stage.
Running its pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago through Dec. 5 before opening at New York’s Barrymore Theatre on March 20, 2022, Paradise Square delivers a show certain to be well represented at next year’s Tony Awards podium. As all accoladed musicals must, it will first be remembered for magnificent delivery of a powerful score by the team of composer Jason Howland (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Little Women – The Musical) and lyricists Nathan Tysen (Amélie, Tuck Everlasting) and Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding, The Family Resemblance), with additional material by Larry Kirwan, who conceived the story, in part based on the songs of Stephen Foster (“Oh! Susanna,” etc.)
Howland, one of this reviewer’s favorite composers, is a master of the ballanthem, a newly-coined term for the perfect blending of ballad and anthem (reference point: “Astonishing” from Little Women; Sutton Foster’s cast recording version is here). Also handling musical direction, arrangements and orchestrations, Howland’s soaring melodies aren’t on Spotify yet. But when the Paradise Square cast recording is released, Broadway aficionados coast to coast should be adding, at least, “Why Should I Die in Springtime,” “I’d Be a Soldier,” Angelina Baker,” “Welcome Home,” “Someone to Love,” “Breathe Easy” and “Let It Burn.”
Another key takeaway is the truly exciting, effervescent staging (directed by Moisés Kaufman) and choreography (by two-time Tony winner Bill T. Jones) that tell this important story of community while they captivate audiences with the blend of Black and Irish dance styles of Civil War-era New York City. Here’s the producers’ synopsis of the book penned by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan:
New York City. 1863. The Civil War raged on. An extraordinary thing occurred amid the dangerous streets and crumbling tenement houses of the Five Points, the notorious 19th-century Lower Manhattan slum. For many years, Irish immigrants escaping the devastation of the Great Famine settled alongside free-born Black Americans and those who escaped slavery, arriving by means of the Underground Railroad. The Irish, relegated at that time to the lowest rung of America’s social status, received a sympathetic welcome from their Black neighbors, who enjoyed only slightly (slightly) better treatment in the burgeoning industrial-era city. The two communities co-existed, intermarried, raised families, and shared their cultures in this unlikeliest of neighborhoods.
The amalgamation between the communities took its most exuberant form with raucous dance contests on the floors of the neighborhood bars and dance halls. It is here in the Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba.
But this racial equilibrium would come to a sharp and brutal end when President Lincoln’s need to institute the first Federal Draft to support the Union Army would incite the deadly NY Draft Riots of July 1863.
Within this galvanizing story of racial harmony undone by a country at war with itself, we meet the denizens of a local saloon called Paradise Square: Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango), the indomitable Black woman who owns it; Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), her Irish-Catholic sister-in-law and her Black minister husband, Rev. Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley); Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart), Nelly’s Irish husband, who is off fighting for the Union army; Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively), a conflicted newly arrived Irish immigrant; Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), a fearless freedom seeker; Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), an anti-abolitionist political boss, and Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), a penniless songwriter trying to capture it all. They have conflicting notions of what it means to be an American while living through one of the most tumultuous eras in our country’s history.
Perhaps the most notable memory of this production from three-time Tony Award-winning producer Garth H. Drabinsky is the jaw-dropping talent of its stars. The strong female lead, Tony Award nominee Kalukango (Slave Play, One Night in Miami) earned a mid-production standing ovation opening night for her impeccable vocals on “Let It Burn.” Her stage sister-in-law Kennedy (more than 1,200 performances in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway; International tour of The Band’s Visit) is every bit her strong equal. Their gorgeous duet, “Someone to Love” is an absolute highlight, and their lead presence as two unabashedly powerful women in interracial marriages is poignant.
Truly, each member of this entire talented cast deserves individual plaudits that would make this (already long) review unreadable. That said, it would be remiss of this site not to call out Jeff Award winner Stampley (Broadway’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, The Color Purple), for his sheer body of work here that has thrilled Chicagoland audiences and his musical theatre co-workers over many years.
All this said, Paradise Square is fundamentally a story about the community who gather in a place—think a really gritty, racially-mixed, woke version of Cheers. The door is always open because sometimes you’ve got to go where everybody knows your name. It was true in 1863 Manhattan, 1982 Boston and, perhaps more than ever, needed in 2021 Chicago/2022 New York. The creatives who mindfully hone and edit this piece in preparation for its Broadway run will do well to keep their minds (and the audience’s eyes) focused on this community.
A note to the Paradise Square creatives: This reviewer’s nits with the current iteration include an overall staid second act (compared to the first); a tad too much dance sameness; lack of character development for Angelina Baker, leaving her gorgeous signature number, “Breathe Easy,” ungrounded; implausibility of a single person’s (Frederic Tiggens’) power and influence; lack of urgency or appreciation of the situational severity for a runaway slave (Washington Henry) accused of murder; and a pregnancy conceived but never gestated to its full theatrical potential. These are offered as observations from one person unfamiliar with story, script or score who saw Paradise Square once and looks forward to its ultimate final draft. Chicago is grateful you chose it for your pre-Broadway engagement.
Paradise Square runs through December 5 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. Chicago. For tickets or more information, please visit broadwayinchicago.com.