Synopsis: It’s 1863 and in a 20-block area of Manhattan known as the Five Points, Black and Irish Americans live side by side, work together, marry, and for a brief period realize racial harmony. However, the intensifying Civil War soon results in the first-ever Federal draft, leading to riots as Whites are called to enlist while Blacks are barred from serving. Will the hard-won bonds of friendship, community, and family in the Five Points prevail or be severed forever?
Set in Civil War era New York City, Paradise Square takes us to a lower Manhattan location called 5 points. There rests the Paradise Square Saloon, a melting pot of Irish immigrants, freed black slaves, and their descendants living in harmony with each other. This saloon is co-owned by Nelly O’Brien (played by Joaquina Kalukango), the child of a runaway slave, and her husband Willie O’Brien (played by Matt Bogart), an immigrant from Ireland. As Willie and his friend Mike “Lucky” Quinlan (played by Kevin Dennis) enlist to fight in the Civil War, two young men, Nelly’s nephew, Owen Duignan (played by AJ Shively), and a runaway slave, Washington Henry (played by Sidney DuPont), take up residence in the saloon as dancers for the bar. As the draft for the civil war looms over Manhattan, forcing the Irish immigrants to fight, Paradise Square Saloon and the citizens of the 5 points are rocked to their core, questioning what matters most to them and the values they hold dear.
Rounding out the characters in the show are: Annie Lewis the sister of Willie O’Brien, her husband Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis, Angelina Baker the woman who Washington Henry was running away with and had been separated from, Fredric Tiggens the corrupt politician attempting to break up the harmony of paradise square and the original slum lord of NYC, Milton Moore the drunkard piano player with an uptown bringing, and a slew of residents that live in 5 Points and frequent the Paradise Square Saloon.
Now, you may be asking yourself, that’s a lot of characters to keep track of. That’s where this show faces it’s biggest hurdle to overcome. The book by Christina Anderson is muddled and confusing with multiple storylines happening at once that never feel finished or flushed out enough for the viewer to be invested too heavily. The first act leaves the viewer somewhat bored trying to remember the names of each of the characters during intermission. As the storylines begin to converge, it casts out characters that probably weren’t needed in the beginning. Overall, Miss Anderson could have maybe taken another run over the script and cut out some pieces that were holding the show back.
Direction under Moisés Kuafman in many places felt like it was borrowing from other shows with similar ideology and themes. Many times the blocking felt like I was watching a scene in “Les Miserable” or “Ragtime” versus something fresh and new. The choreography by Bill T. Jones was very hit or miss dependent upon the number. The moments of Irish step or of African dance were gorgeously implemented and thrilling to watch. However, many times in larger numbers the cast would be semicircle on a stage while someone stepped forward to dance and then step back into the semicircle.
Where Paradise Square shines is in its dynamic libretto crafted by Jason Howland (music/arranger), Nathan Tysen (lyrics), and Masi Asare (Lyrics). The songs kept the story on track and had incredibly well thought out, tight, harmonies leading to music that felt both haunting and original. The cast delivered stand out moments through their use of the songs sung. While act 2 was compromised almost entirely of reprises, there still was newer to the story moments to keep the act from feeling repeated. The set designed by Allen Moyer felt organic and fluid with the space, almost acting as a character they were interacting with rather than a hinderance.
The breakout star of the show was Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly O’Brien. Joaquina belted out show stopping numbers with ease, and drawing the audience into her saloon and all the chaos of the 5 Points. The eleven o’clock number “Let it Burn” quite literally brought the show to a screeching halt as the audience gave Joaquina a standing ovation from the audience that refused to let the story and scene continue moving forward. Her chemistry with her husband and with her sister-in-law made her character feel fully realized and 3 dimensional due to the actresses handling of the material given to her.
Overall, Paradise Square was an unexpected show taking a look back at one of the most unique areas in New York City history. Due to the music and the work done by Joaquina, I would rate this show a 3/5.
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