Review: New Musical Paradise Square aims for lofty themes, gets lost in fuzzy narrative
Chicago has long been a testing ground for new Broadway-bound theatrical productions, and shows heading east from here have varying degrees of success on the Great White Way. The latest Chicago gets a first look at a new original musical, Paradise Square, the story ofâ¦ well, it’s not entirely clear what exactly the story is, which is the main problem with this otherwise flashy production. A show built by committee (no less than four people get book credits, two for lyrics and one for music), the result is a prime example of why the saying “too many cooks in the kitchen” exists. ; with so many hands in making this aimless, untargeted production, no amount of production design and no singularly impressive performance (and there’s one here) is going to save it.
Originally designed to tell the story of Stephen Foster, a mid-1800s songwriter whose songs defined a Civil War-era America (for better or worse), the show at one point morphed into an immigrant story set in 1863 in Manhattan, specifically in a downtown neighborhood known as the Five Points. The neighborhood was commemorated in 2002 by Martin Scorsese New York gangs, and Paradise Square attempts to explore the area from a slightly different and less grainy angle. Here, the center of the neighborhood is the titular tavern, owned by a free black woman, Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango). It’s a central location where, for the sake of the show, the city’s Irish and black communities cross paths, interact, get married and, although there isn’t much time spent on this in the show, live together in harmony. In fact, the show is essentially split in two, literally and figuratively, with half of the cast “Irish” (or at least, white) and the other half black; Nelly is married to Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart), a white Union soldier who goes to war in the first scene. Willie’s sister, Annie (Chilina Kennedy) is married to Reverend Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley) and is Nelly’s best friend. Annie’s nephew Owen (AJ Shively) has just arrived from Emerald Isle, and Reverend Lewis asks Nelly to take Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), an escaped slave who has headed to the north by the underground railway.
If that sounds hard to follow, where does the show go from there – a dance competition to help save the bar from sky-high taxes, a riot against the War Project, a couple reunion, and the disappearance of one. other, to name a few plot points – only escalates. With so many moving storylines and no real protagonist or villain, the show never really has a reason to invest in any of the proceedings. Ensemble productions are nothing new, and many have managed to successfully interweave all of the different narratives they establish. The difference, it seems, is that these shows manage to choose a single narrative lens that all of the characters ultimately fit into. There is no such direction here, as each character seems to have their own path and priorities and they never really converge. The dance competition scene in particular highlights this disconnection; Owen wants to win the $ 300 prize in order to buy his exit from the draft, while Washington Henry is desperate to win and buy his wife’s freedom on his way to meet him in New York. Bill T. Jones’ random choreography sees the two populations engaging in something like a dance battle, evoking the exact opposite sentiment to what the show claims to be. These two communities may exist in the same neighborhood, but they don’t seem to live together at all.
With a plot so thin that there’s next to nothing, the songs aren’t much better (or more memorable). Several of Foster’s familiar themes appear (âCamptown Races,â âOh, Susannahâ and others catch the eye), but the show is probably smart not to dwell on them for too long. One song stands out as a particularly impressive moment in the series, and that’s in large part because of Kalukango’s delivery power; âLet it Burnâ is Nelly’s angry hymn to all the hard work and issues her neighborhood has been facing since the curtain came up. As the Draft Riots pass through Five Points (although we just have to assume they do; there’s no barricade moment, no landing helicopter theater here), Nelly sings that her world , its priorities lie far beyond any building or neighborhood, that Paradise Square can burn everything down as long as its people are safe. Which is a heartwarming feeling, if only he would follow the rest of the show that precedes him.
Every now and then, attending a show locally during its pre-Broadway run is like catching lightning in a bottle; it is obvious that you are seeing something quite special and that you are among the first to witness it. In the case of Paradise Square, all that’s obvious is that this show won’t make much noise when it opens in New York, at least not in its current form. Without driving motivation at its center, there is no way to determine exactly who would be the ideal audience for this ambiguous, toothless tale. And with Broadway more reliant on audience-focused content than ever before (Disney IP or critical smashes seem to be all that can succeed), that doesn’t bode well for the future. Paradise Square.
Paradise Square premieres in Chicago through December 5 and is slated to open in New York City in March 2022. Learn more.
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