What a treat, a show-stopping performance in a Broadway musical. I don’t remember when was the last time I experienced that. Well before the pandemic, certainly. But with Joaquina Kalukango’s powerful singing of “Let It Burn” toward the end of Paradise Square audience members rose and applauded long and hard. Unlike the standing ovations that are routine at the end of Broadway shows, this one was spontaneous and well deserved.
It’s also a treat to see a new original Broadway musical and not another jukebox offering. Paradise Square, expertly directed by Moisés Kaufman at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is historical fiction set in Five Points, “the first slum in America,” a Civil War-era neighborhood in lower Manhattan where for a time American Blacks and Irish immigrants lived side-by-side. A cast of about three dozen brings this period of New York history to life.
The engaging story is written by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. The score — music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare — represents Irish and Black culture.
Kalukango plays Nelly O’Brien, the owner of Paradise Square, the fictional tavern that is the local gathering spot for drinking, music and dancing. In this world of intermingled cultures, she is married to an Irish-American, Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart), who leaves to fight in the war. She is the focal point from which all of the activity revolves.
I loved the dancing. Choreographer Bill T. Jones draws heavily from Irish step, along with Juba, for one lively number after another. (Tap was born in Five Points, combining the two dance forms.). Scenic designer Allen Moyer leaves ample space in the tavern for the large ensemble to kick up its heels. A.J. Shively as immigrant Owen Duignan (right in photo) and Sidney DuPont (left) as runaway slave Washington Henry are outstanding as each showcases his cultural dance.
This close community of the two groups is shattered by the 1863 Draft Riots that had poor and working-class New Yorkers prowling the streets to attack Blacks in their anger over the draft lottery. Blacks were exempt because they were not considered citizens. Poor whites, especially the Irish immigrants, couldn’t afford the $300 to hire a substitute so they were the ones being drafted. They roamed the streets in mobs, burning buildings and beating or killing the Blacks they encountered. The danger is portrayed mostly by lighting (Donald Holder) sound (Jon Weston) and special effects (Gregory Meeh), which effectively evoke the fear of being hunted down. Before it was over 50 buildings would be burned and 119 killed.
In the moving closing, Nelly addresses the audience: “This is where I lived. Where we lived. In the Five Points. We witnessed the largest civil insurrection in the history of our country. A quarter of the Black people left Manhattan. And now . . .”
When she can’t go on the ensemble gathers around her to sing “Paradise Square,” about a place where the door is always open. Nelly rallies to honor what was: “There was a time when, for a brief moment in a small neighborhood, a group of Americans lived in the future. A future yet to be realized.”
I don’t know how interested tourists will be in this story about a small part of New York history, in a show with no name actors. I hope this show makes it.