It’s far too early to know if this is one for the ages, but no doubt this is the most important musical of our times, drawing from American history to depict the kind of racial harmony we still call aspirational, as well as the path to its destruction.
It’s the story of Paradise Square, an anything-goes saloon in Five Points, New York—”America’s first slum”—set near the middle of the Civil War, at a time when free Blacks and Irish immigrants lived together in harmonious squalor. In fact, the owner of the bar, Nelly O’Brien (Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango), is a Black woman married to an Irishman whose sister, Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), is married to a Black minister, Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley). It’s a sort of interracial utopia from the future, until the war and the conscription that follows create heartache and conflict, eventually leading to the Draft Riots that, according to Wikipedia, “remain the largest civil and most racially charged urban disturbance in American history.”
When the draft comes, the Irish (and other) immigrants who can’t afford to hire a substitute or pay $300—a full year’s wages—won’t be able to avoid the battlefield to fight a war for a country they barely know. But Blacks, who are not considered citizens, are prohibited from service, as much as they might actually want to fight. This sets neighbors against each other, in a microcosm of the conflict of the Civil War itself. Never mind that the real villains were the rich who were able to buy their way out of service under the law.
If you’re a fan of the kind of big, dumb musicals that too often make bank on Broadway, this is not your show. It’s smart, nuanced and jammed with ideas about race, gender, class, immigration, the neglect of veterans, and just about everything else that ails America. “Pretty Woman” this is not.
What it is is a percussive dance wonderland, filled with extraordinary Irish jig, Juba and tap dancers—tap was created in Five Points. There is a kind of playful competition and collaboration throughout that calls to mind the high-school dance in “West Side Story,” if only the Jets and the Sharks were friend rather than foe.
Bill T. Jones’ choreography throughout is exceptional—his depiction of slaves being beaten on a plantation in one scene creates a tableau that is somehow terrifying and beautiful at the same time. He can start making room on his mantel for his third Tony Award right now.
The songs in the first act are far less memorable, except the Stephen A. Foster mashups, modernizations of such songs as “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races” that fuel masterful dances. But the performances from Kalukango, Kennedy and Stampley and their powerful voices turn so-so songs into soaring triumphs anyway. And the two lead dancers—Irish immigrant Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively) and escaped slave Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), could put on their own show, and do.
Foster’s music—and character—plays a big part in the show, anchoring songs like the poetic “Why Should I Die in Springtime” but also creating a framework for addressing the history of commercial appropriation of Black music for white financial gain and even minstrelsy. Foster moved to Five Points toward the end of his life and was inspired by it. Little wonder, since most great American music innovations originate in the most hardscrabble places, like jazz, blues and hip-hop.
But the show’s not of one mind when it comes to appropriation in artistic creation. In one key dance scene, Washington Henry wows everyone when he incorporates Irish jig into his own footwork. It’s a theatricalization of the creation of tap. That the show has more questions on this topic than answers is appropriate, since the culture at large is still very much grappling with it as well.
The final third of the show, which depicts the riots and their carnage, is its most expository and episodic and my least favorite, for the dancing recedes and so, generally, do the main characters. Overall, the show, while very strong already, can still use a few nips and tucks of songs and scenes to tighten the pacing and amplify the drama.
Still, small touches are nice, such as tableaus where the inactive ensemble members in a scene freeze in pose, as if prepping for a Mathew Brady photograph. And speaking of the ensemble, I can’t remember a musical where the collective voices constructed such a beautiful wall of sound; it brought to mind the Lyric Opera Chorus.
The music in the second act is much stronger, with “Someone to Love ” and “Breathe Easy” making their case for singing-in-the-shower worthy. Two showstopping scenes are the feis dance competition, where the stake is, not coincidentally, $300, and “Let It Burn,” where Kalukango’s voice and all-consuming presence is stunning, of which the audience agreed such that it erupted in a standing ovation that literally stopped the show. Start engraving her Tony, too.
This show has been on a long road of development, as evidenced by the number of writers credited for the book—Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, the lead singer of Black 47 who planted the seed of this project nearly a decade ago with the predecessor musical, “Hard Times.” But thanks to its all-star cast and creative team, led by three-time Tony Award-winning producer Garth H. Drabinsky, two-time Tony Award-nominated director Moisés Kaufman and two-time Tony Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones, it’s off to Broadway this time, after its short Chicago run.
That long road has also, sadly, brought the cultural relevance of the show to the forefront. When one disgruntled character, a wounded Civil War veteran, sings about being “true to a country that wasn’t true to you,” it’s as if the seeds of the disaffection that plagues some of the white working class today are being planted. And when Gabrielle Clinton, playing Washington’s love and fellow escaped slave Angelina Baker, sings the gospel-infused “Breathe Easy,” a song about slavery promising “You will reach freedom someday,” you can’t help but think about the deaths of George Floyd and Eric Garner, two Black men literally suffocated by white oppression. The song will leave you breathless, as will the sadness.
At the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph through December 5.