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Theatre in Review: Paradise Square (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

Chilina Kennedy, Joaquina Kalukango. Photo: Kevin Berne

The good news: Paradise Square is a big, sprawling tale, a vivid slice of New York City history with a meaningful message for today's audiences, served up with an often-soaring score and ferociously gifted cast. The bad news: It's so top-heavy with talent that it sometimes has trouble getting around. Challenging, adult shows like this are always welcome but, having gone through a lengthy development process, its overcrowded book still needs sorting out. Even its best elements could use some additional breathing room.

The program tells the tale. Paradise Square, which was conceived by Larry Kirwan, has a book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, and Kirwin (Marcus Gardley was attached to it out of town); music by Jason Howland and Kirwin, who was "inspired" by the music of Stephen Foster; lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare; and choreography by Bill T. Jones, Garrett Coleman, and Jason Oremus, all under the direction of Moisés Kaufman. (A couple of dramaturgs are onboard, too). It's a too-many-cooks situation, so overloaded with (often admittedly fine) contributions that a certain amount of clogging was probably inevitable.

The rousing opening number whisks us from modern New York to the Five Points, a long-gone downtown Manhattan neighborhood where Blacks and Irish immigrants mingled freely. It is 1863, the Civil War is raging, and the city is quietly seething. Nelly O'Brien is the area's unofficial mayor, her tavern serving as a community crossroads. Nelly is Black; her Irish husband, Willie, is off with the Fighting 69th. Willie's sister, Annie, is also in an interracial marriage, in her case to the Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis; they operate a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves get to Canada. Just as Annie's nephew, Owen Duignan, arrives in New York bent on making his fortune, Annie and the Reverend Samuel receive Washington Henry, a refugee from a Tennessee plantation, who, making a perilous decision, refuses to keep going until he is reunited with Angelina, the lover and traveling companion from whom he has been separated.

Things are tense enough with Washington hiding out above the tavern. But resentment is brewing among white dock workers who fear that Blacks are taking their jobs; even more threatening is the military draft, widely seen as a path to certain death. (Anyone can buy their way out of the Army for $300, which is more than most men make in a year. Ironically, the many Black men who long to join in the struggle against slavery are barred from joining up.) Stirring up trouble on the sidelines are corrupt politician Frederic Tiggens and bitter war vet "Lucky" Mike Quinlan, who surrendered an arm to the Confederacy. Then there's Milton Moore, the alias of a broke, alcoholic composer, who takes refuge in Nellie's tavern, where he slicks up folk songs into weepy popular tunes. It's a tinderbox of intolerable social tensions that will explode with the notorious Draft Riots, setting the Five Points aflame.

It's an uncanny mirror of today's politics of racial resentment, in which groups that should be natural allies are pitted against each other by expert manipulators. The stage is crowded with stories -- there's enough for ten episodes on Netflix -- and it takes all of Act I to introduce the principals, each of whom rolls along on his or her separate track. Things pickup enormously in Act II, as the action gets caught up in the melodrama of manhunts, betrayals, and simmering social unrest. Yet, for all the pulsing anthems and elaborate production numbers drawing on Black and Irish step dance styles, one misses more moments like "Someone to Love," in which Nellie and Annie, driven by circumstances into angry opposition, reach out to each other for a moment of understanding. It's simple character interaction and Paradise Square could use more of it.

Holding the enterprise together by sheer force of will is Joaquina Kalukango as Nellie, a proud, independent woman with a coolly pragmatic manner and a lusty enjoyment of life's pleasures. Kalukango consistently thrills with her singing, whether tearing into the title tune, casting a pall of sadness with the ballad "Heaven Save Our Home," or practically laying waste to the premises with the eleven o'clock number "Let in Burn." (She will convince you she can face down a gang of hooligans with only her vocal belt. On my way out of the theatre, I was eyeballing the plaster to make sure it was still in place.) Her performance alone is reason enough to see Paradise Square.

Everyone else in the cast delivers, as well: Chilina Kennedy, tough as hobnails as Annie; Nathaniel Stampley, an authoritative Reverend Samuel; and Matt Bogart, providing touching vocals as Willie. As Owen, who didn't come to the land of opportunity to become cannon fodder, A.J. Shively dances with abandon, his feet never seeming to touch the floor; his style contrasts effectively with Sidney DuPont's funkier footwork as Washington. If it's a musical about old New York, then John Dossett must be the villain; he expertly lends his mound of cottony hair and practiced smirk to Tiggens. Also fine are Kevin Dennis as rabblerousing "Lucky" Mike; Gabrielle McClinton as pure-voiced Angelina; and Jacob Fishel, as slippery, selfish Milton, who inadvertently puts his friends in danger.

Allen Moyer's triple-tier set is an impressive sight, although apparently, at the performance I attended, the turntable wasn't working correctly. Donald Holder lights everything with unfailing skill and taste, including time-of-day effects, strikingly layered color compositions, and a sinister orange wash for a city on fire. Because of the set's intentionally skeletal nature, however, an upstage electric, filled with large LED units, looks a little intrusive, as does a wall of lighting units that flies in for one number; it's one of those compromises that can be hard to avoid. The projections, by Wendall K. Harrington and Shawn Edward Boyle, include an opening montage of downtown New York today in addition to pristine, evocative black-and-white images of the New York docks. Toni-Leslie James' costumes range from authentic looking working class-wear to some real stunners for ladies of fashion; the designer's eye for detail has never been sharper. Jon Weston's sound design preserves intelligibility even when the entire company is singing at the top of its collective voice.

The dancing provides a steady pulse of energy, although the production could be structured more effectively; sometimes, you feel that everything is being thrown at you at once. This is something of a theme in Paradise Square, which overflows with good things not always put to their best use. Still, it has plenty to offer, including a thrilling opening, a pulse-pounding climax, and Kalukango, staking her claim to stardom. If it's not quite Paradise, it's certainly adjacent. --David Barbour

(6 May 2022)

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