PARADISE SQUARE -Ethel Barrymore Theatre
The Playbill for the musical PARADISE SQUARE credits a dramaturg, but she didn’t make much difference. The book, credited to three playwrights including the versatile Craig Lucas (“An American in Paris, “Light in the Piazza”) is a jumbled mess, with plotlines tripping over each other, principal conflicts undefined and an ambitious reach for contemporary political relevance.
The time is 1863, the place is a tiny corner of tenement slums in Lower Manhattan called Five Points, where Irish immigrants and freed Blacks live in interracial harmony, biracial marriages. They congregate in dance halls and neighborhood bars, where the roots of American tap took root. African American Nelly O'brien (played by the fabulous Joaquina Kalunkango) married to Irish Catholic Willie O'Brien (Matt Bogart) owns one of the most popular taverns. Her best friend is her Irish sister-in-law Annie Lewis (Chilina Kenendy), who’s married to a Black Baptist preacher (Nathanial Stampley). When Willie goes off to fight for the Union, Nelly defends her business from the usurious, anti-abolitionist landlord from uptown Frederick Tiggens (John Dosset) . The bar is also a stop on the Underground Railroad. Annie's Black preacher husband harbors an escaped slave Washington Henry (Sidney du Pont) at the same time that Annie’s nephew Owen Duignan (A. J. Shivley of ) arrives from Ireland. When Lincoln orders the first Federal Draft for all white men, including immigrants to be conscripted, tensions mount between Irish and Blacks. Washington and Owen face off in a dance competition with a $300 prize ; Washington to buy his freedom, Owen to avoid conscription. Then the The New York Draft Riots erupt.
Why PARADISE SQUARE was developed as a musical is a puzzling premise itself; conceived by Irish rocker Larry Kirwin, some of the music was inspired by the music of Stephen Foster, who shows up as a piano player in Nelly’s bar. (Another plotline.)
Basically, however, PARADISE SQUARE is a dance musical that is endlessly full of athletic dance sequences and movement choreographed by the inimitable Bill T. Jones. Borrowing vernacular dance from both African and Celtic forms, Jone’s choreography emerges as the raison d'etre for this production. The problem is that there is really too much of it, or more precisely there is so much dance that when the most consequential dance occurs in the second act - the competition between Washinton and Owen - it is almost anticlimactic. Moises Kaufman directs indistinctively; when the large ensemble isn’t dancing e.g. it hangs around the stage like in old-fashioned musicals (think “Guys and Dolls’).
The music by Jason Howland (“Little Women”) observes pretty much standard Broadway idiom. The title song “Paradise Square”, lead by Kalukango, is an impressive opening number, and wisely it doubles as finale too. The 11 o'clock number “Let It Burn”, a reference to the riots that destroy Nelly’s bar, gets a rousing rendition from Kaluhango. The ensemble of dancers is terrific, and solo dancers duPont and Shively really are a match for each other. But, in the end, PARADISE SQUARE leaves one both dizzy from the dance and , most regrettably, dizzy from the plot, too.