The grand journey of the musical “Paradise Square” reached its culminating destination of a full-scale Broadway opening Sunday night. Even New York City Mayor Eric Adams was there at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, offering heartfelt pre-curtain remarks about the relevance of this yesteryear tale of Black and Irish Americans living together peacefully as a template for our own time. “It’s time for us, just as they did, to push through the conflicts.”
Beginning life as an intimate Off-Off Broadway show conceived by Irish American author and musician Larry Kirwan, originally called “Hard Times” a decade ago, its metamorphosis into an epic extravaganza occurred across two coasts with a transformative stopover in Chicago last fall. (Newcity profile of producer Garth Drabinsky here; Newcity review of the Broadway in Chicago production here.)
The setting of 1863 on the eve of the Draft Riots in the nineteenth-century Lower Manhattan neighborhood known as Five Points has remained a constant. The music began as Kirwan’s reimagining of Stephen Foster songs but has evolved into an American grand opera with a compelling new score by Jason Howland that nonetheless remains rooted in the melodic world of the controversial figure known as the Father of American Music.
Dramaturgically, Foster hasn’t fared as well in the show as he has musically. The real Foster did come to New York in 1860 where he died four years later from injuries from a fall at the age of thirty-seven. In “Paradise Square,” Foster (Jacob Fishel) is shown as hiding his identity to play the piano at the fictional tavern of that name and ends up stealing songs from the Black residents there. Given that Foster did appropriate Black music of his day and profit from it as America’s first commercially successful songwriter, fair enough. What “Paradise Square” leaves ambiguous is what then are we to make of Stephen Foster? Like so much of the history of America, he remains both a curse and a blessing. In the Chicago production, he came across as more of a curse. For Broadway, some redeeming moments for Foster have been restored. As Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango), the owner of Paradise Square would say, “let the bar decide.”
The other component that really gives momentum to the narrative of “Paradise Square” is the presence of bi-cultural dance. Choreographer Bill T. Jones’ distinctive style radiates throughout. In Chicago, the switch from dialogue to dance was more abrupt, the dance on Broadway now much more integral to the action. Particularly moving is the addition of more dreamlike, almost ballet-like sequences used to illuminate backstories, such as the incident that forced the hand of Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont) to take the life of his master. The contrast and juxtaposition of Irish step dancing to contemporary Black dance, both then and now, remains a central plot point and the cast has become so free and expressive that the movement is more organic.
For those who saw the show in Chicago, the music tempos are much brisker right from the start of the show. In Chicago, the opening number title song where Nelly welcomes us to the neighborhood then and now was darker and more somber. No more. This is as energetic an opening as imaginable, propulsive and inspiring.
In fact, based on Chicago audience reaction, Howland has composed new songs that succeed in making the piece more dramatically integrated. The Act I finale has been restructured with a new song and purpose. In Chicago, Nelly had a poignant, introspective song of mourning “Welcome Home,” imagining her recently departed husband at the door. It was an amazing moment and Kalukango had us crying as we went to intermission. Using the same melodic hook, “Welcome Home” is now “Heaven, Save Our Home,” and is no longer a ballad but a power anthem that sums up all that is at stake for not only Nelly, but all that Paradise Square represents with the attempt to divide and conquer the Black-Irish coalition of the neighborhood.
Even songs that were there, such as “I’d Be a Soldier,” originally a more introspective song focused on a single character, is now a show-stopping Union anthem for the cause.
The climax of “Paradise Square” is the heart of the show and thankfully, everything that works about it was left alone. In Chicago, we got what Nelly was saying: if you, my beloved neighbors whom I have fed and supported think your riots and torches scare me after all that we’ve been through, “Let It Burn.” But borrowing a page from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” names are now named. It is very personal. And very powerful. And what Kalukango does with this eleven o’clock number vocally was always stunningly spectacular. But she has now found the dramatic heart of this moment as well. Her tears are real. And so are ours.
“Paradise Square” at Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th, New York City, paradisesquaremusical.com/