Joaquina Kalukango’s star can’t be dimmed, even when she’s shining through a mess.
It was bound to happen. A producer or two was going to witness the money-printing, multiyear grip Hamilton had on Broadway and pop culture at large and try to replicate it with another multiracial, multiethnic cast telling a story about a little corner of history.
And it was also inevitable that such a trend would lead to some duds.
Enter Paradise Square, a sprawling musical about Irish immigrants and formerly enslaved people living in the integrated New York neighborhood of Five Points during the Civil War. It’s 1863, and the Union Army needs bodies, but its leadership is not yet desperate enough to arm Black people. So the duty falls to poor white immigrants like the ones who flock to Five Points to head to the front.
An internecine neighborhood conflict plays out in the local watering hole owned by Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango), a Black woman who is left widowed when the war claims her white Irish husband, Willie (Matt Bogart). Nelly and her pregnant sister-in-law, Annie (Chilina Kennedy) must find a way to save the bar, Paradise Square, from corrupt politicians and their robber baron friends attempting to tax and fine it out of existence. These are the same men who instituted a draft for the Union Army. Annie and her husband, who is a free Black minister, are also conductors on the Underground Railroad.
These women have committed themselves to helping two men. One, Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont) has run away from a plantation and is attempting to reunite with his wife, who fled separately, before the two head for Canada. The other is Annie’s fresh-off-the-boat nephew, Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively). Both need the room above Nelly’s bar, and both are in need of cash.
Nelly decides to host a dance contest that boasts a single $300 prize — the amount necessary to buy one’s way out of the draft, or to start a new life in Canada. The profits from hosting this shindig, she reckons, will be enough to pay off the fees she owes to the government and keep the bar open. The plot, broken up with a series of mostly forgettable ditties, only gets more convoluted with the addition of composer Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel) as a drunken cultural appropriator, whose actions set off a riot among the Irishmen who do not wish to die for a “rich man’s fight.” Everything comes to a fiery head as Nelly tries to keep her bar and her neighborhood safe, and Kalukango more than owns the stage with a teary rendition of “Let It Burn” before the show’s big finale.
But Paradise Square, which received 10 Tony nominations, including for Kalukango and for best musical, appears to have learned all the wrong lessons from its predecessors. Its big kumbaya ending emphasizes that this show is little more than a remix of the complicated history of Five Points, mining ugly motivations for an anodyne narrative that won’t leave the audience feeling too bad about slavery once they exit Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Paradise Square, which was in development for nearly 10 years, was written by a committee of Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. It began originally as an off-off-Broadway musical called Hard Times: An American Musical, staged in 2012, that was built more around Stephen C. Foster’s story and tunes. It has since been transmuted into a bloated, two-hour-and-45-minute experience of overwrought pastiche, scrambling together elements of Ragtime, Carousel, Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, Les Misérables and, yes, Hamilton.
There are areas of promise. Choreographer Bill T. Jones is responsible for the most lively, engaging moments of Paradise Square, mining historical and contemporary dance to create a call-and-response between Irish step dancing and West African juba, the parents of modern tap dance. And Kalukango, who was nominated for a Tony for the role of Kaneisha in the Broadway run of Slave Play, has the opportunity to show off a big, satiny merlot of a singing voice. If she can shine amid this overly sentimental, convoluted, ahistorical dreck, it’s worth imagining what she could do with a role that puts her considerable talents to better use.
But overall, the show never rises to the challenges raised by the history it resurfaces, leaving an audience to appreciate little more than the dancing and the “great gowns, beautiful gowns!” of Paradise Square.
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