Review: Broadway Musical Paradise Square imagines a racial utopia in a notorious slum

I was technically married in the Five Points. Of course, New York’s most infamous slum is almost unrecognizable now, occupied by government buildings, the oldest piece of Chinatown and the gruesome prison where Jeffrey Epstein breathed his last. But in the years surrounding the Civil War, it was the site of miserably concentrated poverty as free blacks and Irish immigrants crowded into racially integrated tenements and dance halls. It was also the laboratory of a kind of wonderful cultural alchemy. It’s the subject of the new Broadway musical place of paradisethat feels more packed than a Cow Bay flophouse.

It takes place around the bar that Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango) runs with her husband Willie (Matt Bogart), an Irish immigrant who enlisted in the army with his boyfriend Mike (Kevin Denis). The two head south to preserve the union, leaving the bar in the care of Nelly and Willie’s sister, Annie (spunky understudy Kennedy Caughell at the performance I attended, but normally Chilina Kennedy).

Joaquina Kalukango plays Nelly O’Brien and Matt Bogart plays Willie O’Brien in place of paradise on Broadway.
(© Kevin Bern)

Meanwhile, Annie’s nephew, Owen (AJ Shively), arrives from Ireland at the same time as Joah (Sidney DuPont), a former slave, arrives via the Underground Railroad, on which Annie’s reverend husband (Nathaniel Stampley) serves as station master. Joah won’t be leaving for Canada without his love, Angelina (Gabrielle McClinton), so the Reverend agrees to let him stay over the bar. The only problem is that Annie has already promised this room to Owen, so they have to share like a 19th century Oscar and Felix.

Then the draft kicks in, targeting any white men who can’t produce a replacement or $300. Cynical politician Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett) looks for a way to exploit this and, in great New York tradition, also imposes massive fines on Nelly’s bar, which he dislikes for being racially mixed (the establishment appears to be based on Pete Williams’ dance hall at 67 rue d’Orange). Nelly comes up with a solution: a dance contest that will bring in booze revenue and offer one lucky winner $300. This is New York Gangs meets Intensify with a somewhat pointless C-plot involving Stephen Foster incognito (Jacob Fishel), using it all to overcome his writer’s block. That’s a lot for a two hour and forty minute musical that takes very seriously.

The cast of place of paradise performs a production number around the riots of the 1863 project.
(© Julieta Cervantes)

One can at least appreciate the irony of writers calling the father of American music cultural appropriation while simultaneously sampling from her songbook (“Camptown Races”, “Old Folks at Home”, “Angelina Baker”, and “Oh! Susanna” all make appearances). It is the dramaturgical equivalent of simple land recognition: Yes, someone stole this thing that I now appreciate, and I feel bad about it, but I’m not giving it back. #SorryNotSorry.

Much of this confusion can be traced to the origin of this show as another musical called hard times, which performed off-Broadway in 2012. Larry Kirwan was the sole writer at the time of what was mostly a bio-musical about Foster’s time in the Five Points. It is easy to see how the subject has become more and more problem in the decade it took to bring a show like this to Broadway. New cooks entered the kitchen to prepare the broth, adding ingredients and then leaving: Craig Lucas and Christina Anderson are credited alongside Kirwan as book authors. Marcus Gardley was credited during the Chicago run, but has now disappeared from the billing. Throw in some pleasantly uplifting (but mostly forgettable) new music from Jason Howland and lyrics from Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare, and we’re left with a stone-soup musical, some parts of which are still edible if you like. take the risk of ingesting an undissolved bouillon cube.

Sidney DuPont plays Joah, and as AJ Shively plays Owen in place of paradise on Broadway.
(© Kevin Bern)

An aspect of place of paradise that feels fresh is the expansive choreography by Bill T. Jones, which fuses elements of Irish stepping and West African dance to give a striking visual expression of the kind of cultural exchange that occurred in the Five Points – the whole without losing Jones’ signature gestural style. In big production numbers like “Now or Never,” we see the merging of styles and techniques as healthy competition and joyful appropriation push the form forward (it’s the best response to the special after Stephen Foster’s school). The excellent cast really gets into it, and it’s a joy to see.

Sadly, such moments are fleeting in director Moisés Kaufman’s dark, flickering production encapsulated by Allen Moyer’s oversized set: its multiple levels convey the density of the Five Points, while its constantly rotating stage betrays the more is more attitude that prevails in Broadway design. Donald Holder has enlisted a regiment of LED lights, which he lines up against the far wall like a firing squad. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are period while allowing for movement (a must in this show). And sound designer Jon Weston strikes a nice balance, but never goes Hollywood with the off-stage riot noise of the 1863 project – which seems like a misplaced restraint at the time of the climax.

Besides dancing, the reason to see place of paradise is Kalukango, who delivers a powerful performance as a woman trying to hold her fragile world together through what feels like the end of time. She suspends audiences in awe throughout her solo numbers, “Heaven Save Our Home” and “Let It Burn.” A tear rolling down her cheek, she roars to the back row, and we truly believe she could stop a raging crowd with just the power of her voice. Sadly, she can’t single-handedly save a Broadway musical suffering from an identity crisis.

Joaquina Kalukango stars in place of paradise on Broadway.
(© Kevin Bern)

With its sprawling cast, towering landscapes, serious ballads and anthem production numbers, place of paradise looks like a Broadway musical from another era – Wretched with banjos (the wicky-wicky guitar in Howland’s orchestrations sounds like a whole different kind of throwback). This historical revisionism is almost beside the point where the fundamentals of good musical storytelling are not there.

Is there still room on Broadway for epic historical musicals? The continued success of hamilton suggests so, although this show benefits from a much more distinctive and confident authorial voice. And even though it wasn’t a hit on its last Broadway revival, I still hope someone brings it back. Ragtimea historic musical that has successfully brought its many cogs together, and only gone up in value (place of paradise lead producer Garth Drabinsky also produced this gem in 1998). Until then, we’ll have to make do with people like place of paradisewhich (like all utopias) overpromises and underdelivers.