About three quarters through the new Broadway musical “Paradise Square,” my lingering doubts about the show vanished. This clarifying moment happened during the show’s 11 o’clock number, “Let It Burn.” Nelly (played by Joaquina Kalukango) was facing a crowd of angry white people threatening to lynch her family and burn down her business. Instead of cowering, she belted the phrase “Let it burn,” a challenge and a command.
As Kalukango sang, her soulful voice gained both altitude and power, as if she were climbing up to the heavens with her bare hands. After hitting her final note, which seemed to come out of her chest in an explosive roar, the audience leapt to their feet in applause.
Yes, “Paradise Square” is a bloated, melodramatic musical that could cut 20 minutes off its 2-hour-and-40 minute run time. But as Kalukango sang, I felt that I was watching Broadway history in the making — in years to come, those of us who were in the room will gush, smugly, “I was there when Joaquina Kalukango tore the roof down at the Barrymore Theatre.” It’s a committed performance that elevated the musical and demanded the audience’s empathy, reminding us of the humanity of all the characters in the story.
Set in 1863, “Paradise Square” takes place in the former Five Points neighborhood in lower Manhattan, where Black Americans and Irish immigrants lived peacefully alongside each other. That is, until the Draft Riots that summer, wherein a white mob, angered about being called to fight in the Civil War and about freed slaves taking their jobs, destroyed the neighborhood and the Black businesses within it, killing 120 people.
Kalukango’s Nelly runs the Paradise Square saloon in Five Points with her Irish husband Willie (Matt Bogart), his sister Annie (Chilina Kennedy) and Annie’s husband Samuel (Nathaniel Stampley), who is Black. But this interracial family is put in jeopardy when Nelly agrees to illegally hide a runaway slave named Washington (Sidney DuPont). Plus there’s the simmering white resentment just outside her door.
“Paradise Square” isn’t an educational tale about Black oppression or comfort food about how to overcome racial division. Instead, this is a moving and complicated musical about how different groups of people live together; their differences can make for a beautiful tableau, but can also be weaponized by the ruling class to pit them against each other. You don’t have to think too hard to understand the class and race parallels between 1863 and 2022, and the musical smartly lets the audience fill in those blanks.
The musical’s score, an impressive mixture of Irish jigs, 19th century work songs and jazz, reinforces the musical’s themes of racial harmony and racial division, while driving the show’s energy forward. One group number, “Why Should I Die in Springtime,” in which the Irish characters lament having to fight in the Civil War, is immediately answered by “I’ll Be a Soldier,” in which the Black characters declare they would fight if America would let them. It’s a brilliant battle in musical form.
Bill T. Jones’s expansive choreography similarly takes on these themes. Jones combines Irish step dancing, tap dancing, modern break dancing and Haitian Yanvalou, yet creates distinctive dances for the Irish characters and the Black characters. The result is character-motivated choreography that is astounding in its density and gorgeous in appearance.
Still, there’s a lot of narrative bloat to “Paradise Square.” This may be in part due to the musical’s crowded creative team, with three book writers, Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, music by Jason Howland (with additional music by Kirwan, inspired by Stephen Foster) and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. The strength of such a large creative team, led by director Moisés Kaufman, is its diversity, which is reflected in the musical’s score. But too many voices can dilute the focus of the show.
There’s a betrayal in the second act that the show hinges on, but it comes from a white character who is so minor that he doesn’t appear again after his narrative function is fulfilled. The show also fails to give the former slaves Washington and Angelina (an underused Gabrielle McClinton) actual character development; despite the stirring ballads that they sing together, they basically function as plot devices used to disrupt the racial Eden that Nelly had built. For a show about race, it’s a glaring oversight.
There have been many headlines about the financial trouble at “Paradise Square” and about its producer, Garth Drabinsky, who is a convicted felon. Despite this, “Paradise Square” is the kind of new musical that Broadway needs more of: an original story that is ambitious, moving and entertaining, with a diverse cast singing in formidable harmony.
“Paradise Square” opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on April 3, 2022.
Creative: Conceived by Larry Kirwan; Book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan; Music by Jason Howland; Lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare; Additional Music by Larry Kirwan; Inspired in part by the songs of Stephen Foster; Music orchestrated by Jason Howland; Music arranged by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan; Directed by Moisés Kaufman; Choreographed by Bill T. Jones; Musical Staging by Alex Sanchez; Scenic Design by Allen Moyer; Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Jon Weston; Projection Design by Wendall K. Harrington.
Producers: Garth H. Drabinsky; Produced in association with Peter LeDonne, Jeffrey A. Sine, Matthew C. Blank, Joe Crowley, Len Blavatnik, Joseph Coffey, James Scrivanich, Rick Chad, Arthur M. Kraus, Bernard Abrams, Broadway & Beyond Theatricals, Sherry Wright & Craig Haffner, Gilbert & Elisa Palter, The Shubert Organization, Jeremiah J. Harris, Terry Schnuck, Urban One, Inc., Richard Stursberg, Sanjay Govil, Amabel James, Dennis Mehiel, Robert Wolf, Walter Swett, Zachary Florence and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Cast: Joaquina Kalukango, Matt Bogart, Kevin Dennis, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, Jacob Fishel, Chilina Kennedy, Gabrielle McClinton, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Colin Barkell, Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Josh Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, 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, Hailee Kaleem Wright.