Based on historical facts, the new and exciting musical Paradise Square tells a story of fictional characters caught up in real events which lead up to the Draft Riots that occurred in Manhattan in July 1863. Set in the notorious neighborhood known as Five Points, renowned as the most dangerous place to live in the United States, it takes place mainly in the fictional Paradise Square Saloon in the real Paradise Square. Aside from the sensational dancing by choreographer Bill T. Jones and a rousing score by composer Jason Howland who also conducts, the show stars Joaquina Kalukango giving a show-stopping performance in the leading role. However, she is also surrounded by a great many leading characters played by actors at the top of their game. Like an epic adventure, Paradise Square will keep you engrossed until the very last moment.
The songs are a heady mix of lovely ballads and impassioned anthems all played to the hilt. Starting in 1863, the complicated plot is initially narrated by the heroine, African American Nelly O’Brien. We are introduced to her Paradise Square Saloon, inherited from her father, a runaway slave, in the heart of the Five Points neighborhood (now the site of the NYC Civic Center, and west of today’s Chinatown.) It was then an interracial neighborhood where poor Irish immigrants and Black workers lived and intermarried in harmony. Nelly is married to Irish soldier Willie O’Brien who goes off to the Civil War with his friend ‘Lucky’ Mike Quinlan. Willie’s sister Annie is married to the Black Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis. Annie is awaiting the arrival of her nephew Owen Duignan from Ireland while the Reverend who is a Station Master on the Underground Railroad is awaiting a pair of runaway slaves from Tennessee.
When Joah appears, he refuses to travel on to Canada as he has lost his girlfriend Angelina Baker along the way and wishes to wait for her. The Reverend renames him “Washington Henry” in order to hide him in Nelly’s boarding house over the saloon, sharing a room with the newly arrived Owen with whom he becomes fast friends, performing in the saloon nightly. Uptown boss Frederic Tiggens tells the Uptown merchants who resent the denizens of Five Points being anti-South and anti-business which is hurting their income that the Paradise Saloon is the hub of the problem and he arranges to have Nelly taxed out of business. When Lucky Mike returns from the Civil War having lost one arm he finds he cannot get his old job back on the docks and blames the Reverend who is now the foreman and the other African Americans now working those jobs, and both he and Owen become disaffected and turn toward Tiggens’ plots.
Just at this point, President Lincoln enacts the Draft Bill in which all able-bodied male citizens and persons of foreign birth between the ages of 25 and 45 are ordered to perform military service for the United States to be chosen by lottery. However, those rich enough to have three hundred dollars or find a substitute are exempt. While the African Americans are not included as they are not considered American citizens in 1863, the poor Irish like ‘Lucky’ Mike and Owen are fearful that they will soon be cannon fodder. This eventually leads to the draft riots that attack Five Points in the largest civil insurrection in the history of the country.
As the heroine, Kalukango who impressed in Slave Play, Hurt Village and The Color Purple, gives a titanic performance as the spirited Nelly O’Brien who does not bend her convictions for anyone. Her singing, dancing and acting are top-drawer and she has been receiving standing ovations for her eleven o’clock number, Let It Burn, a song that in her hands sears with passion. As her assistant and friend, the feisty Annie Lewis, Chilina Kennedy is almost as good. As her husband, Nathaniel Stampley is sensitive and compassionate as the Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis.
A.J. Shively as refugee Owen Duignan, freshly arrived from Ireland, takes the dancing honors in his electrifying fast-paced Irish step dancing. Sidney DuPont as the runaway Tennessee slave renamed Washington Henry impresses with his American Juba as well as competing with Shively in step dancing. As the show’s villain, John Dossett as the Pro-South Uptown Boss is out of 19th century melodrama though he does play down the histrionics. Gabrielle McClinton as Washington’s girlfriend Angelina Baker acquits herself beautifully with her three brief appearances. Kevin Dennis goes from being one of the good guys to one of the bad guys as ‘Lucky’ Mike Quinlan who changes sides when he finds he can’t get a job after returning wounded from fighting in the Civil War. Seen too little, Matt Bogart lends his fine baritone to his two songs as Nelly’s husband Willie who is off fighting in the war during most of the show. Jacob Fishel is amusing as piano player and drunk “Milton Moore” who has a secret of his own.
The book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kerwan, from an earlier musical Hard Times by Kerwan, is chock full of characters and plot devices but is easy to follow in performance, if not in summary. The lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare are serviceable but when put to Howland’s lush melodic music becomes greater than itself. The score cleverly incorporates songs by Stephen Foster who not only wrote in this time but lived in Five Points the last five years of his life (1859 – 1864), the period covered by the musical.
The dynamic choreography by Bill T. Jones (assisted by Gelan Lambert and Chloe Davis) and the musical staging by Alex Sanchez are what this show has going for it, while the direction by Moisés Kaufman is rather conventional and old-fashioned. The scaffolding scenery by Allen Moyer is impressively large and unattractive but does get the job done, while Toni-Leslie James’ many costumes are eye-filling in their Civil War period richness. Donald Holder’s dark lighting gives Nelly’s saloon and the environs of Five Points a somber and sinister air. The limited projection design by Wendall K. Harrington and Shawn Edward Boyle is entirely appropriate and could have been used more.
Paradise Square is a rousing musical which brings to life a little known and forgotten chapter in New York City history as well as a community of which we have often heard but know little about. (The film Gangs of New York tells another side to the story.) Joaquina Kalukango whose memorable performance is certain to go down in the record books and be a top contender for the Tony Award makes this a must-see show. However, the rest of the fine cast as well as Bill T. Jones’ sensational choreography are an integral part of this engrossing theatrical experience.
Paradise Square (March 15 – November 27, 2022)
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.ParadiseSquaremusical.com
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission