Don’t Miss “Paradise Square: A New Musical” in Berkeley

By Chris Narloch

“Paradise Square: A New Musical” is a fascinating true story told in song and dance that brings to light a painful period in our country’s racial history. It features a first-rate cast and creative team and could potentially have a very bright future.

It’s not every day that Northern California has the opportunity to witness a new Broadway musical being born, but that is exactly what Berkeley Rep has in store for you with this world premiere, which is receiving a try-out before (hopefully) transferring to New York City.

Based on incidents that occurred in a culturally diverse Manhattan neighborhood during the Civil War, “Paradise Square: A New Musical” seeks to find current parallels and modern meaning in a sad chapter from U.S. history -- and mostly succeeds.

Paradise Square was a park located within The Five Points, a 19th-century neighborhood in Lower Manhattan that became a crime-infested, disease-ridden slum filled with, among others, poor immigrants from Ireland and free Blacks.

The events of the musical lead up to the real-life draft riots that occurred in Five Points in 1863, after Irish resentment of their black neighbors boiled over as a result of the planned Civil War draft of poor whites in the area.

The deadly riots were especially heartbreaking given the fact that, prior to this tragedy, the two racial groups had mostly formed a peaceful coexistence that included business partnerships and interracial relationships.

The connections between the story of “Paradise Square” and the ‘United’ States of 2019 are clear to anyone who sees the new musical which, if I had to sum it up in a phrase, is a thrilling production of a work-in-progress that still needs some work.

All of the technical aspects are in place in Berkeley, and they are first-rate: a diverse and enormously skillful cast; a renowned director (Moises Kaufman) firing on all cylinders; and a legendary choreographer (Bill T. Jones, with assistance from Dell Howlett, Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus) who all but steals the show.

None of those elements are lacking in any way, and I also enjoyed the evocative scenic and lighting design by Allen Moyer and Donald Holder, respectively, as well as the lovely costumes by Toni-Leslie James and the pristine sound work by Jon Weston.

As for the work itself, “Paradise Square” isn’t always up to the level of its superb execution in this production. The first act is way too long, the second one is too short, and I’m not at all sure what to do about the contest in Act 2 that briefly turns the musical in to “So You Think You Can Dance.”

That dynamite dance battle, which pits a black man against an Irish guy, seems shoehorned in to this serious show, and yet it’s also one of the most exciting sequences in “Paradise Square.”

Additionally, the songs of Stephen Foster, and a major character based on the controversial composer, are woven in to the musical -- which thankfully addresses head-on the racially problematic nature of some of Foster’s lyrics -- in a manner that sometimes comes off like a history lesson.

Luckily, the actors who portray Foster (Jacob Fishel) and his challenger, the saloonkeeper Annabelle “Nelly” Freeman (Christina Sajous), are so strong, that the lesson is at least a compelling one.

Ms. Sajous, particularly, owns the stage whenever she has the spotlight, and if the conception of her character, as written, feels slightly too modern in some of its details, the performer is such a commanding singer and actress that I couldn’t keep my eyes off her.

With time (and revisions), that difference in quality between the uneven book by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan and the superior performance of it by the cast will, I hope, be erased, and “Paradise Square” will really soar.

Due to ticket demand, the production of “Paradise Square” has been extended, through March 3, 2019. For more information, please visit http://www.berkeleyrep.org.

 

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