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Paulanne Simmons

Paradise Square Presents a Moment in History… Maybe

Paradise Square
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
The Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47 Street
Opened April 3, 2022
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons May 8, 2022

Photo by Kevin Berne

If you’re a history buff and a stickler for details, you may take exception to some of the liberties taken by the book writers of Paradise Square, Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan.

The musical, directed by Moisés Kaufman, certainly exaggerates the cordiality between Blacks and the Irish in New York City’s Five Points prior to the Civil War. It seems not to recognize how precarious the position of even free Black men and women was in the North. Its portrayal of Stephen Foster and his music ignores the fact that Foster never stepped foot below the Mason-Dixon line and was mostly influenced by the Irish music he grew up with. And it asks us to believe that a runaway and hunted slave would risk capture by participating in a dance contest, no matter how much he needed the money.

And if you’re particularly nasty, you might note that the show has not one, but two dramaturgs,
Masi Asare and Sydné Mahone, and ask what happened. But if you’re not so particular, you’ll find this show, with its brilliant dance and hummable score, quite enjoyable.

The book focuses on Nelly O’Brien, (Joaquin Kalukango), a Black woman who owns a Five Points bar (aka brothel) called Paradise Square. She is married to Irish American Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart), brother of Nelly’s friend and assistant in the bar, Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy). Annie is also married to a Black man, the Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nahaniel Stampley), who is deeply involved in the Underground Railroad.

While the Civil War rages and soldiers (particularly Irish immigrants) go off to war, two men arrive at the bar, Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), who is fleeing slavery in the South, and Annie’s nephew Owen (A.J. Shively), who is fleeing poverty and starvation in Ireland. When Nelly organizes a dance contest to raise money for the taxes party boss and Southern sympathizer Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett) has imposed on her, Owen and Washington become contestants, giving choreographer Bill T. Jones ample opportunity to display his considerable talents.

In fact, the show’s many dance numbers, which contrast and blend Irish step dance and African Juba, are one of the highlights of the show, frequently taking over the stage with dazzling results. The other highlight is the score (music by Larry Kirwan, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare), which contains many ballads balanced with lively, sometimes patriotic sometimes protest songs.

When it comes to singing, it’s Kalukango who delivers the show’s knockout blow. But she really should not overshadow Shively and Kennedy who perform some of the musical’s most poignant ballads.

Even if Paradise Square’s basic plot did not have so many holes in it (both historical and logical) the musical would still be overburdened with too many plot lines and too many characters. Washington has a girlfriend who is also escaping; a bitter soldier returns with one arm missing.

It seems musicals today often suffer from an either/or problem. Either they try to do too much or they’re sketchy jukebox musicals or simple presentations of complex issues that don’t attempt very much at all.

However, while we hope for something better, we can still have a good time with what we’ve got.

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