Theater Review: PARADISE SQUARE (Pre-Broadway Engagement in Chicago)

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by Dan Zeff on November 18, 2021

in Theater-Chicago,Theater-New York


The eyes of the theater world, both in Chicago and New York City, are likely now focused on the James M. Nederlander Theatre where Paradise Square is performing before its transfer to Broadway to begin previews on February 22, 2022. There are high hopes that this will be an early new Broadway musical hit of the post pandemic era; this run is its final out-of-town tune-up before moving to the Great White Way.

A. J. Shively

The musical has been in gestation for more than a decade in one venue or another. There are 26 names listed in the playbill as producers and nine more in the artistic credits. The cast numbers 38 with 14 musicians in the pit orchestra. This is one very persistent and ambitious project!

Eilis Quinn, Chloe Davis, and ensemble
Gabrielle McClinton, Sidney DuPont, and ensemble

”Paradise Square” is the name of a saloon in a 19th-century New York City neighborhood known as the Five Points, a vibrant melting pot populated by newly arrived Irish immigrants and Blacks with ancestors dating back to colonial days. The two cultures generally got along existing on the bottom rung of American society, intermarrying and raising families. They performed scintillating dance cutting contests in the area’s dance halls and saloons that gave birth to the Black Juba style and Irish step dancing (ah, there, Riverdance).

Jacob Fishel, Sidney DuPont, A.J Shively
Jacob Fishel

The specific events in the musical take place in 1863. The narrative climaxes in a riot in which the Irish protested against being drafted into the army unless they could pay $300 or provide substitutes, both impossibilities among the impoverished immigrants (the Blacks weren’t eligible for the draft, not having citizen status). So Paradise Square is a slice of Americana, exuberant in its cultural mix yet violent, with 119 people officially listed as killed in the riot, though as many as 10 times that number may have died.

Jacobi Hall, Chloe Davis, Kayla Pecchioni, Dwayne Clark, Hailee Kaleem Wright,
Jay McKenzie, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Karen Burthwright, Sidney DuPont, Joshua Keith
Jacobi Hall, Garrett Coleman, Jason Oremus

Paradise Square thrives as a terrific song-and-dance show rooted in American history. Every performer is loaded with talent as singers or dancers and often both. The musical score by Jason Howland, with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare, is a splendid combination of Irish and Black themes buttressed by numbers in the Broadway tradition. Howland has integrated the music of Stephen Foster, notably “Camptown Races” and “Oh Susanna,” into leitmotivs that blend seamlessly with Irish folk melodies. The book has passed through the hands of many writers, with final credits, to date, going to Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lewis, and Larry Kirwan.

Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman
Joaquina Kalukango and ensemble

Lovers of dance will particularly revel in the choreography of the eminent Bill T. Jones, who shapes the dance contests of the day into spectacular high stepping and hard swinging production numbers. The massed performers fill the stage with variations on “Oh Susanna” that are among the most exhilarating dancing set pieces I have ever seen.

Joaquina Kalukango, Matt Bogart
Joaquina Kalukango, Nathaniel Stampley, Chilina Kennedy and cast

The featured star of the show is Joaquina Kalukango, who plays Nelly O’Brien, owner of the Paradise Square saloon. Near the end of the show, she sings a single sustained note of passion and defiance that went on and on, stimulating a frenzied audience reaction that literally stopped the opening night performance for minutes.

John Dossett, A.J Shively, Kevin Dennis
Kayla Pecchioni, Jacobi Hall, Karen Burthwright

Every credited player contributes to the exceptional performance level, but for me the first among equals is Sidney DuPont, who plays Washington Henry, a young Black activist. DuPont is featured in a half dozen numbers, serving up soaring and emotional solos whether the mood is upbeat or impassioned. Other heroes of the show include Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, A. J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Kevin Dennis, Jacob Fishel (a fictional Stephen Foster), and Matt Bogart. Let them represent the entire uber-talented ensemble.

Kevin Dennis, A.J Shively, and ensemble
Nathaniel Stampley, Chilina Kennedy

The action is carried out on a multi level moveable set designed by Allen Moyer that visually captures the poverty stricken ambience of the Five Points. Toni-Leslie James is responsible for the multitude of historically credible costumes. Donald Holder designed the lighting, Jon Weston the sound plan, and Wendell K. Harrington the evocative projection designs. Moises Kaufman’s direction pulls the show’s complex elements together into a coherent whole. Kaufman’s handling of so much superb singing, dancing, and narrative is beyond impressive.

Sidney DuPont, A.J Shively, and ensemble
Sidney DuPont, Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, Nathaniel Stampley, A.J Shively

So, will the multi-million dollar Paradise Square make it big on Broadway? Its level of professionalism is unarguable, but the running time probably needs attention. The 90-minute first act was a long sit, and the narrative can probably be thinned out in the interest of a tighter audience experience. Yet I didn’t see or hear any obvious dead weight that could be carved away. The score doesn’t provide any catchy tunes (the Stephen Foster numbers aside) so customers won’t be humming any songs leaving the theater. But the score remains powerful and melodic. The ticket prices, at least in Chicago, are comparably inexpensive. Indeed, considering the abundance of talent on stage, the cost of admission is a bargain. I wish Paradise Square well in New York City. The show’s exceptional commitment to the highest aspirations of the American musical should not go unrewarded.

Sidney DuPont, Nathaniel Stampley

photos by Kevin Berne

Paradise Square
Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph St. in Chicago
most perf: Tu, Thurs, Fri at 7:30; Wed at 2 & 7:30; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7:30
for tickets ($25 to $116.50) call 800 775 2000 or visit Broadway in Chciago
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

for the Broadway Production, visit Paradise Square Musical

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