Paradise Square Far Too Earnestly (R)Evolves onto Broadway

Chilina Kennedy, Joaquina-Kalukango, and Ensemble in Broadway’s Paradise Square. Photo by ©Kevin-Berne

The Broadway Review: Paradise Square

By Ross

Opening up with an expansive wide-eyed wonder, reminding us all of those other big themed musicals like Les Misérables, the new musical, Paradise Square finds its quick footing in Manhattan’s 19th Century Five Points, centered around the strong presence of Nelly O’Brien, as portrayed forcibly by the phenomenal Joaquina Kalukango (Broadway’s Slave Play), who delivers on all the promises made. She is the central force, and a big one at that, with her hero husband, Willie O’Brien, embodied by Matt Bogart (Broadway’s Jersey Boys) standing in the background cheering her on. Standing next to her is her feisty best friend and sidekick Annie Lewis, played by the appealing Chilina Kennedy (ATC’s This Ain’t No Disco), who fills out the reason and the heart of this Five Point bar. She’s definitely a woman to be reckoned with, and not argued with. Just ask Lewis’s husband, the Reverend Samuel Jacob lewis, played well by Nathaniel Stampley (Broadway’s The Color Purple) who stands nearby willing to help all those in need. His part is a thankless one, merely there for structure and support of the greater good, as it really is these two strong-minded women that this overly ambitious story on a monstrous set swirls so swiftly around. Without their force and their dynamic sense of self, this musical would burn itself to the ground almost before the set rotated itself around even once.

Even as it stands now, Paradise Square is an overly earnest mash-up of two or three too many storylines and improbabilities, well sung and performed by a talented crew. But yet in all its glory, that show-stopping eleven o’clock number “Let It Burn,” as sung most gloriously by Kalukango, worthy of all her nominations that she has been receiving, can’t save it from its own self-destruction. The organicness of the leads translates, but they can’t quite right this incoherent musical as it throws together all of the immense struggles of the neighborhood without barely taking a breath, and it’s a neighborhood rife with conflicts, one, and only one being the increasingly volatile distrust and animosity between the Black and the Irish residents. The musical has a huge ambition, diving dynamically into America’s race issues, but it doesn’t stop there. It continues to pile on more, mashing together numerous other battles, with each of them basically big enough and powerful enough to be worthy of their own musical adaptation. If only television’s Queen bee, Shonda Rhimes was given the chance to do her magic on the story. She would have pulled the whole thing apart into smaller more concise bits for better digestion, much like she did so beautifully with Bridgeton‘s multiple possible storylines, delivering season after season of unpacked dives into each of these thrilling stories and never letting our interest falter. There’s definitely enough here for that kind of unpacking, but for one musical? Well, the whole thing just gave me a bit of indigestion for trying to swallow it all up in one viewing. It’s much too big of a meal for that.

As directed with a strong intent by Moisés Kaufman (2ST/Broadway’s Torch Song), the set for Paradise Square, designed with industrial grace by Allen Moyer (Broadway’s Grey Gardens), with beautiful costuming by Toni-Leslie James (Broadway’s Come From Away), dynamic lighting by Donald Holder (Broadway’s Tootsie), and a strong sound design by Jon Weston (Broadway’s She Loves Me), turns in and around itself, pushing forward a historical story that should be ground in emotional relevancy, but only gets more cluttered inside its random chaotic self with each rotation and revelation.

There’s political trouble, we soon find out, being stirred up between the Blacks and the Irish, thanks to the fiendishly mustache-twirling villain, Frederic Tiggens, played dastardly by John Dossett (Broadway’s War Paint) and a quick roundabout turn by the once happy Irish uncle by the name of ‘Lucky’ Mike Quinlan, played solidly by Kevin Dennis (TIFT/Birdland’s Assassins) whose newfound post-war anger sets fire to the world. This storyline could have been sufficient to draw us into the lives and troubles of the 19th-century neighborhood which this musical revolves itself around. Or maybe it could have been the story about the runaway slaves in love, living emotionally large and tense lives in the forms of the newly renamed Washington Henry, played strongly by Sidney DuPont (Broadway’s Beautiful) who, while escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad gets separated from his love, Angelina Baker, played fleetingly by the impressively emotional Gabrielle McClinton (Broadway’s Pippin). That’s a compelling idea that really does get sidelined by Washington’s competitive friendship with an oblivious and self-involved Owen Duignan, portrayed by A.J. Shively (Broadway’s Bright Star) who is fresh off the boat from Ireland hoping to make a new life in America. They each work so hard to make us feel for them both, yet to understand their impulses, we have to drink a lot of whiskey to help us swallow all that down. But boy, can the two of them dance up a storm.

Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, and Ensemble in Broadway’s Paradise Square. Photo by ©Kevin-Berne

Naturally, this rivalry leads to a dance competition that would mean the world to them both, to somehow find some sort of parallel process between the working-class Irish and the formerly enslaved men and women who have made their way to Paradise Square. All to the piano playing of a drunkard who goes by the name of Milton Moore, portrayed by Jacob Fishel (Broadway’s Fiddler…) who has a back-end story that is pivotal, but so very fleeting. It is a storyline that is utterly and historically fascinating but gets the shortest end of the proverbial stick. I was wondering halfway through why his character was even there, and when we finally are delivered that answer, he basically disappears again until the final curtain call. Oh well.

With a huge ensemble of very skilled dancers, the choreography of Bill T. Jones (Broadway’s Spring Awakening; TNG’s Black No More) finds numerous grand high-kicking moments to showcase itself well. Inspired, like a lot of the music, by Irish step dancing and some may be too modern twists living inside the fine work done by DuPont and the others, the scenarios for dance sparkle with energy and inventiveness, and with the big-eyed musical staging by Alex Sanchez (PMP’s Beauty and the Beast), those sequences begin to feel like a distraction to something more important that is at the core. Try to imagine Les Mis and the rebel soldiers breaking out in big dance numbers before getting ready for battle. It’s not exactly that extreme, but you’ll register the problematic dilemma when DuPont’s on-the-run character dances back into the bar at the last moment to participate in that big dance competition. I mean, his dancing is phenomenal, with his only rival on Broadway right now being Funny Girl‘s Jared Grimes, but the set-up does not give justice to his storyline, nor to the whole drama at the center. And that over-the-top reaction from Shively’s Owen also throws the whole rotation off its track.

Joaquina-Kalukango and Ensemble in Broadway’s Paradise Square. Photo by ©Kevin-Berne

The motto of the Paradise Square moment seems to be, that no matter what chaos is happening around them, there is always time for hot-headed anger and to dance up a storm. And yes, I know this is a big song and dance musical, but in trying ever so hard to be something more meaningful and powerful than some of its structuring can give, book-writers Christina Anderson (The Ripple), Craig Lucas (Blue Window) and Larry Kirwan (Transport) – who also conceived the show and wrote additional music, stumble along the way to both a dance competition and a citywide burning riotous revolution. Some of the lines Shively’s Irish Owen is forced to say to DuPont’s Washington also made me cringe with astonishment, but it seems the writers believed they really needed that conflict to keep the fire burning in both of these characters’ eyes and feet. It’s an awfully hard pill to swallow, these two and the way they carry on as friends and as rivals, and it didn’t do anything for my already full and overextended belly.

Paradise Square tries its earnest best to whip out the history books to give the story some emotional weight, but it only seems to weigh the whole piece down as they cram too many motifs, inspired by true events, onto too many characters, making the harsh reality of these people seem almost melodramatic. But the set keeps spinning, thankfully, until the impressive Kalukango gets her big finale number, with music by Jason Howland (Little Women) and lyrics by Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting) and Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding). The lung power and talent within are both extremely impressive. It’s just a shame, like the whole musical itself, that what she is actually saying in this formulaic song gets lost in the translation of the whole. It’s both overly huge and, at least by the time it arrives, meaningless to my worn-out heart.

Cast: Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Jacob Fishel, Matt Bogart, Kevin Dennis, Garrett Coleman, Jason Oremus, Colin Barkell, Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Conor Coleman, Eric Craig, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Josh Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Sean Jenness, Joshua Keith, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Kayla Pecchioni, Eilis Quinn, Lee Siegel, Erica Spyres, Lael van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren, Alan Wiggins, Kristen Beth Williams and Hailee Kaleem Wright

8 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s