Chicago has long been a proving ground for new stage productions bound for Broadway, and the shows that head east from here go on to varying degrees of success on the Great White Way. The latest Chicago gets an early glimpse at is a new original musical, Paradise Square, the story of…well, it’s not entirely clear what exactly the story is, which is this otherwise flashy production’s main problem. A show built by committee (no fewer than four people get book credits, two for lyrics and one for music), the result is a prime example of why the saying “too many cooks in the kitchen” exists. Wiith so many hands in the making of this aimless, unfocused production, no amount of production design and no singularly impressive performance (and there is one here) are going to save it.
Originally conceived to tell the story of Stephen Foster, a songwriter in the mid 1800s whose songs defined a Civil War-era America (for better or worse), the show at some point morphed into an immigrant story set in 1863 Manhattan, specifically in a downtown neighborhood known as Five Points. The neighborhood was memorialized in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York, and Paradise Square attempts to explore the area from a slightly different, less gritty angle. Here, the center of the neighborhood is the titular tavern, owned by a free Black woman, Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango). It’s a central location where, for the show’s purposes, the city’s Irish and Black communities specifically intersect, interact, inter-marry and, though there isn’t much time spent on this in the show, live together in harmony. In fact, the show is essentially bisected down the middle, both literally and figuratively, with half the cast “Irish” (or at least, white) and the other half Black; Nelly is married to Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart), a white Union soldier who goes off to war within the first scene. Willie’s sister, Annie (Chilina Kennedy) is married to Reverend Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley) and is Nelly’s best friend. Annie’s nephew Owen (AJ Shively) is newly arrived from the Emerald Isle, and Reverend Lewis asks Nelly to take in Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), an escaped enslaved man who made his way north on the underground railroad.
If that seems hard to follow, where the show goes from there—a dance contest to help save the bar from exorbitant taxes, a riot against the war draft, a reunion of one couple and the demise of another, to name a few plot points—only gets messier. With so many moving plot pieces and no real protagonist or villain, the show never produces much of a reason to invest in any of the proceedings.
Ensemble productions are nothing new, and many have managed to successfully intertwine all the various narratives they establish. The difference, it would seem, is that those shows manage to pick a single narrative focus to which all the characters are ultimately attuned. There is no such direction here, as each character seems to have their own path and their own priorities and they never really converge. The dance contest scene in particular puts this disconnection into stark relief; Owen wants to win the $300 prize money to buy his way out of the draft, while Washington Henry is desperate to win and buy his wife’s freedom on her way to meeting him in New York. Bill T. Jones’s haphazard choreography sees the two populations engage in something like a dance battle, evoking the exact opposite sentiment from what the show purports to be about. These two communities may be existing in the same neighborhood, but they don’t seem to be experiencing life together at all.
With a plot spread so thin there’s hardly anything to it, the songs aren’t much better (or more memorable). Several of Foster’s familiar themes appear (“Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susannah,” and others catch the ear), but the show is probably smart not to dwell on them for too long. Only one song stands out as a particularly impressive moment in the show, and that’s in large part to Kalukango’s powerhouse delivery; “Let it Burn” is Nelly’s angry anthem against all the toil and trouble her neighborhood has faced since the curtain rose. As the draft riots make their way through Five Points (though, we just have to assume they do; there is no barricade moment, no landing helicopter theatrics here), Nelly sings that her world, her priorities lay far beyond any building or neighborhood, that Paradise Square can all burn to the ground so long as her people are safe. Which is a moving sentiment, if only it tracked with the rest of the show preceding it.
Every now and then, catching a show locally during its pre-Broadway run is like catching lightning in a bottle; it’s obvious you’re seeing something quite special, and that you’re among the first to get to witness it. In the case of Paradise Square, all that’s obvious is that this show won’t make much of a splash when it opens in New York, at least not in its current form. With no driving motivation at its center, there’s no way to pinpoint exactly who would be the ideal audience for this ambiguous, toothless tale. And with Broadway more reliant than ever on audience-driven content (Disney IP or critical smashes seems to be all that can succeed), that doesn’t bode well for Paradise Square.
Paradise Square is in pre-Broadway previews in Chicago through December 5 with plans to open in New York in March 2022. Learn more.
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