“Paradise Square” is what Broadway’s best musicals are made of—it’s a theatrical masterpiece! The new musical playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on West 47th Street, shares a piece of our history from 1863, New York during the Civil War. In a story that takes you full circle, the audience is introduced to the Five Points area of lower Manhattan, the first slum, where Irish immigrants and formerly enslaved Black Americans not only lived together, but loved each other, as shared by lead character and narrator Nelly O’Brien. At the time, freed Blacks were struggling as much as the Irish immigrants who came to this country for a better life in America. Paradise Square was the local saloon and hang-out, where people came to socialize, sing, dance and relax.
“Paradise Square” is the story of this community of freed Black and Irish immigrants who lived in relative harmony until President Abraham Lincoln called for the first draft and drafted Irish immigrants only to fight in the Civil War. Once the draft was imposed this led to the Irish—who were already locked out of jobs because Blacks worked for cheaper wages—feeling outraged and taken advantage of, leading to the Draft Riots of 1863. There is something very captivating about watching a story unfold that is part of history; to add splendid, moving songs and dancing to it is just a win-win situation. The cast and creative team take their time walking the audience through the feelings and raw emotions felt by people on both sides and that makes this a human story not to be missed.
There are multiple show-stopping numbers from the opening song “Paradise Square” to “Heaven Save Our Home” to “Let It Burn.” Throughout this musical the exceptional cast sent chills running through the audience with the power of their vocal delivery, the electric, heart-pounding dancing and the variety of emotions they shared. This cast is splendid on all levels!
Joaquina Kalukango is brilliant as Nelly O’Brien, the owner of Paradise Square saloon and the wife of Willie O’Brien, an Irish army captain with the fighting 69th, the first all-Irish Army regimen. Kalukango has a glorious, tender and touching voice and completely takes the audience along on the highs, lows and betrayals that occurred during this time in history. Chilina Kennedy is fantastic as Annie Lewis, Nelly’s sister-in-law and wife of Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis, stunningly played by African American Nathaniel Stampley. Sidney DuPont is stirring as Washington Henry, a runaway slave being transported through the Underground Railroad. He sings with such power and his dancing is superb! A.J. Shively makes his mark as Owen Duignan, the nephew of Annie and an immigrant coming to find the American Dream. Shively has a wonderful singing voice and can dance with such style and flair. Kevin Dennis is tremendous as “Lucky” Mike Quinlan, an Irish immigrant tired of the mistreatment his people are receiving. Matt Bogart is incredible as Willie O’Brien, the husband of Nelly. Their passion is so engaging. John Dossett is splendid as the corrupt politician Frederic Tiggens, who wants to destroy Nelly and the following she has by the Irish immigrants. Jacob Fishel is marvelous as Milton Moore. Gabrielle McClinton is remarkable as Angelina Baker, the escaped slave and girlfriend of Washington Henry.
So many aspects of this new musical that just scream SUCCESS! Firstly, it takes us back to a time when people in the Five Points slums looked at each other as just people. There was a mixing of the races, like freed Blacks with Irish. Secondly, look at how art imitates life. When you look at the creative team of this musical, there is also an extraordinary mix of African American and white originality and creativity. The painstakingly detailed book is by African American Christina Anderson, with Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. Kirwan is also responsible for conceiving the musical and additional music. African Americans Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare created the lyrics and Jason Howland created the music along with doing music supervision, music direction and orchestration. Choreography legend Bill T. Jones birthed tremendous dance numbers with two Black associate choreographers––Gelan Lambert and Chloe Davis, and Irish & Hammerstep choreography is by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus. Costume design is by the one-and-only, African American Toni-Leslie James. Cohesive, monumental direction is the work of Moises Kaufman.
I have seen many musicals over the decades that I have been covering theater and everyone knows that when a show-stopping number is being performed you let the performer finish, but I tell you this, when Kalukango is singing “Let It Burn,” especially near the end of the song, I dare you to try and stay seated and quiet. You will be like me and so many others who jumped to our feet, applauded and started screaming. She sang that song with such power, determination and conviction and she held notes longer than you would think humanly possible.
“Paradise Square” has to be in your theatrical plans. Visit www.paradisesquaremusical.com for more info.