“Paradise Square,” an ambitious new musical heading to Broadway in March, is a fictionalized historical take on the Five Points area of Manhattan and the social forces leading up to the violent Draft Riots of 1863, where what began as immigrant protests against the Civil War draft turned into violence against the Black population of the city. The show, now playing its premiere run in Chicago, is a serious and awfully big effort, emerging at a sensitive moment for a theater world that sure could use an explosive new hit, with an abundance of artistic craft onstage deserving of effusive praise and two soaring moments of transporting entertainment. Yet it must, as a whole, currently be considered unsettled at best.
The show’s genesis and history say a lot about its challenges. It started as a work conceived by Larry Kirwan — a writer and former leader of an Irish political rock band — about Stephen Foster, the composer of famed American stalwarts such as minstrel songs “Swanee River” and “Camptown Races,” an icon of both popularity and rosily racist views of plantation life. Nurtured by auteur-ish Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky, the show picked up prominent collaborators and very different artistic voices such as playwrights Marcus Gardley and Craig Lucas, composer Jason Howland (“Little Women”), director Moises Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”) and choreographer Bill T. Jones (“Spring Awakening”) and was staged at Berkeley Rep in 2019. Playwright Christina Anderson (“How to Catch Creation”) has worked on the book since that time. And yet, despite all the skill that polishes away plenty of over-complication, the show feels a bit like it’s negotiating with itself. It’s hard to figure out exactly what core audience would be its champion.
The multiple storylines all cohere around Paradise Square, a saloon in the poor and rough Five Points neighborhood (the setting of Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”), and at the center is Nelly (powerhouse performer Joaquina Kalukango), daughter of an enslaved person and inheritor/owner of the establishment. She is married to an Irishman named Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart), who readies proudly to go off to fight in the Civil War. O’Brien’s sister Annie (Chilina Kennedy) is also in a racially mixed marriage, an emblem of the harmony between diverse communities that forms a frame for the eventual social collapse.
Annie’s reverend husband (Nathaniel Stampley) helps with the underground railroad, and he brings an escaped enslaved man, re-christened Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), to live at the tavern while he waits for the arrival of his wife, sharing a room with Willie and Annie’s nephew Owen (A.J. Shively), recently arrived from Ireland. Washington and Owen, fortunately for all, are both dancers, so they entertain at Paradise Square with the pianist-with-a-secret calling himself Milton (Jacob Fishel).
That dancing is the highlight of the show. Choreographer Jones mixes Irish stepdance with African Juba with his own brand of modern motion, incorporating sharp arm movement. The entire show reaches its artistic peak with DuPont’s dance in the second act, filled with intense emotion, fits of humor, and deeply expressive and unique movement combinations. It’s the fusion of influences — an assertion of American-ness — that the show wants to be throughout but achieves only here.
The songs by Howland, often taking off from a base of a Stephen Foster original, are filled with rich harmonies and elegant crescendos, and the lyrics from Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare are a bit less rich but generally functional. The problem is that the songs don’t tend to propel the action, even if they do attempt to let us into the character’s inner lives.
In fact, the leads tend to be primarily reactive throughout. Instead, two other characters catalyze the action. First, there’s Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), the most purely symbolic character of the bunch, a walking-and-talking villain dressed by designer Toni Leslie-Jones to look like a Monopoly figure. He’s both an evil capitalist (and therefore anti-abolition) and a corrupt politician, and one can only wonder why he wasn’t also made the owner of a newspaper. He’s a tornado of terrible-ness, and pretty much everything is his fault. He uses his power to fine Nelly huge sums, so much that she arranges a dance competition — a feish in Gaelic, pronounced “fesh” — to raise the money.
The other catalyst is Lucky Mike (Kevin Dennis), who comes back injured from the war and can’t find work. Tiggens whispers in his ear that he should blame African-Americans for taking his job, and the resentment begins to boil. When the draft is announced, and Blacks can’t serve because they aren’t citizens and the wealthy can buy their way out, Lucky Mike recruits the likable but terrified Owen to activism.
White resentment channeled to conspiracy, violence and ultimately targeted against minorities with even less political power — Sound familiar? It’s a fair connection, reminding us that as a country we’ve been repeating ourselves for centuries. But “Paradise Square” does carefully leave out more seething racism as a driving force, which leaves a big gap in explaining exactly why the riots turn away from the wealthy. It’s a gargantuan narrative hole that strips the ending of force, making it feel abstract.
In fact, even the climactic song from Kalukango (Tony-nominated for “Slave Play”) seems to be the pinnacle moment of a story we haven’t seen. Despite her deep attachment to Paradise Square, Nelly sings “Let It Burn” as she watches the riots reach her home, which, conceivably, is an anthem of independence and strength, and provides the second performative high of the show, bringing the audience to their feet. But the path from Paradise Square being “in my bones” to “let it burn” — if it’s there, it’s so subtle as to be invisible. And that makes the joy of the high notes merely a fleeting moment, followed by a more lasting sense of puzzlement.