BULLET REVIEW “PARADISE SQUARE”
A New Musical
Opens next week at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Directed by Moises Kaufman with choreography by Bill T. Jones and music by Jason Howland
Given the tsunami of young, megawatt talent singing, dancing and leaving their hearts on stage, in “Paradise Square”, a Broadway musical opening next week, I feel like an old jerk saying something negative.
This production takes an ambitious dive into the nation’s historic but still gaping wounds of race, immigration and class conflict, exposed by the July 1863 New York City Draft riots, days after the Battle of Gettysburg.
As Howard Zinn put it in his “Peoples History of the United States”,(p.192)
With the Proclamation, the Union army was open to blacks. And the more blacks entered the war, the more it appeared a war for their liberation. The more poor whites had to sacrifice, the more resentment there was, particularly among poor whites in the North, who were drafted by a law that allowed the rich to buy their way out of the draft for $300. And so the draft riots of 1863 took place, uprisings of angry whites in northern cities, their targets not the rich, far away, but the blacks near at hand. It was an orgy of death and violence.”
The story unfolds in what was known as the “Five Points” neighborhood of Manhattan, where today Courthouses bump up against Chinatown. It was a heartbeat of history when Irish immigrants fleeing starvation and blacks escaping slavery formed bonds that included love and marriage, as they struggled to survive against a backdrop of New York’s moneyed class profiting from the slave-based cotton trade with a vested interest in keeping wages low by getting those people to fight with each other with the Civil War raging.
The dancing by the show's stars, Sidney Dupont, as an escaped slave and A.J Shively, playing a just off-the-boat Irish kid, is breathtakingly mesmerizing. Joaquina Kalukango blows the roof off the house with her showstopping finale.
I don’t think the cheering people all around me in the audience would agree but the lyrics and the dialog felt strained, pedantic and missing an essential poetic magic. There was too much teaching and point-making.
And now for a perhaps too picky, but nonetheless jarring annoyance. These dancers are world-class athletes. Having them perform with prop cigarettes incongruously sticking out of their mouths was distracting.
A musical built on the historical debris of the 1863 draft riots and the shattered unique harmony of a community in Five Points is painfully timely. It was a moment when the existential question, as Lincoln would put it later that year at Gettysburg, was whether a nation, “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” would survive.