Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Review of Paradise Square at the James M. Nederlander Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Paradise Square. The book was by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan. The music was by Jason Howland and the lyrics were by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. It was directed by Mois├ęs Kaufman, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, and music directed by Jason Howland. It was about Paradise Square which was a neighborhood in New York City that was home to many discriminated-against groups during the Civil War era. The musical focuses on Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango) as she tries to navigate running one of the most popular bars in the area, sheltering escaped enslaved people, and the draft riots and the effects of the civil war on her family. It is a riveting, reflective, and socially relevant celebration of home, diverse cultures, and the dance and music that help get us through hard times.

I loved how much dance is a part of this show. The combination of Juba and Irish dance styles blended with contemporary dance accented the period well and was a great celebration of the mixing of cultures. The dancing was beautiful but also parallels the social unrest in the period. Two of the main characters are Owen (A.J. Shively) and Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont) who are both new to Paradise square. Washington Henry has escaped slavery and Owen has escaped famine in Ireland and both of them share a passion for dance. I really enjoyed watching the process of them discovering each other’s dance styles and picking up techniques from one another. They start to perform together, but eventually they are forced to compete and find themselves battling over who deserves the prize money more. This competition powerfully symbolizes the catalyst for the draft riots, where the disadvantaged fought among themselves, prompted by the rich and powerful Anglo-American political leaders. I really enjoyed how the dance was connected to the overall themes of the show. Sometimes in a dance number in a musical, the plot ceases to move along. It is interesting to watch but it doesn’t make a point. But here they use dance as a plot device not as a “break.” 

 “Breathe Easy” begins with Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton) singing to herself, waiting for her lover Washington Heny to come find her. I think McClinton’s performance was intimate and very moving. At first it felt like Angelina was unsure if she could get through this and be free with the person that she loved, but as more and more voices joined her, including the voice of Washington Henry, you saw her determination and confidence grow. As she is surrounded by those who came before her, encouraging her, it felt like the room had been transformed and everyone was focused on the storytelling that was happening onstage. The reason why “Breathe Easy” has so much impact is because even though Washington Henry and Angelina Baker have escaped slavery and found each other again, the play doesn’t neglect to reflect on and remember the people who were not able to escape or survive. Even though this musical focuses on the hope and relief that came for Washington and Angelina, it doesn’t forget the disgusting and tragic truths.

My favorite relationship in this show was the one between Nelly O’Brien and her sister-in-law Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy). They sang a song together called “Someone to Love,” which focused on how much Nelly had lost during the war and at the start of the riots. What made this song different from most other love songs in musicals is that it honed in on the loss of romantic love and the redirection of that love to family, work, and community. Since both Annie and Nelly lost the same person who was important to them in different ways, Annie tries to remind them both that they should be happy that they had someone to love and that they still have each other to love. It was my favorite song in the whole musical because it felt very genuine and it modeled a type of love that isn’t modeled that much in our culture. “

Let it Burn” was so beautifully performed by Kalukango. She brought so much raw emotion to this song that made her stepping out in front of the people of her community even more breathtaking. She punctuated moments with breath that meant just as much as the lyrics. The song also has so many levels. It was a ballad but drew from so many different types of song. It had initiative and drive to it, even though clearly Nelly is exhausted and has lost so much. In this song she is declaring that she doesn’t need the property or the physical neighborhood, all she needs is the people behind her. Her performance reminded me why I love theater so much--because of multilayered, intuitive, and thoughtful performances like hers. People who would like this show are people who like celebrating varieties of love, moving and relevant music, and dancing metaphors. I absolutely loved where this show is going and it reminded me of so many things I love about musical theater. I am so excited that I got to see it before it moves to Broadway.

Photos: Kevin Berne