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Review Roundup: PARADISE SQUARE Opens on Broadway

The new musical opened tonight, Sunday, April 3rd, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Paradise Square

Paradise Square opened tonight on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036).

New York City. 1863. The Civil War raged on. An extraordinary thing occurred amid the dangerous streets and crumbling tenement houses of the Five Points, the notorious 19th-century Lower Manhattan slum. For many years, Irish immigrants escaping the devastation of the Great Famine settled alongside free-born Black Americans and those who escaped slavery, arriving by means of the Underground Railroad. The Irish, relegated at that time to the lowest rung of America's social status, received a sympathetic welcome from their Black neighbors (who enjoyed only slightly better treatment in the burgeoning industrial-era city). The two communities co-existed, intermarried, raised families, and shared their cultures in this unlikeliest of neighborhoods.

Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango (Slave Play) leads the 40-member cast that also features Chilina Kennedy (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), Tony Award nominee John Dossett (Newsies, Gypsy), Sidney Dupont (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), A.J. Shively (La Cage aux Folles, Bright Star), Nathaniel Stampley (The Gershwin's Porgy & Bess, The Color Purple), Gabrielle McClinton (Pippin, Chicago), Jacob Fishel (Fiddler on the Roof), Kevin Dennis (Canadian productions of Young Frankenstein, Assassins) and Matt Bogart (Smokey Joe's Café, Miss Saigon). Aisha Jackson (Frozen, Waitress, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) will stand by for Ms. Kalukango.

Let's see what the critics had to say...


Jesse Green, NY Times: In that combination, I feel the meaty hand of the producer Garth H. Drabinsky, who seems to have used his influence to shape "Paradise Square" into a likeness of his previous hits. [...] But unlike those musicals, which were built on the frames of strongly written novels by authors with singular voices, "Paradise Square" feels almost authorless despite its many contributors, and the direction of Moisés Kaufman, known for a strong hand and conceptual coherence, does little to erase the impression of anonymity.

Adam Feldman, Time Out NY: It's a handsome production, with a talented and notably large cast; the exciting dance sequences, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, are among the show's highlights [...] The problem is that the writing doesn't support the spectacle, yielding a ponderous hash of good intentions that often feels like a training-wheels version of Ragtime. The disjointed script hops among scenes and tones, and while one understands the impetus behind ditching Foster's catchy but plantation-flavored songs, the score that has replaced them-by Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare-is mostly unmemorable.

Elysa Gardner, NY Stage Review: But Kaufman, with ample support from Jones, also culls bravura performances. If Chilina Kennedy's Annie is overwrought-I found myself wondering how the actress is going to get through eight shows a week bellowing her lines as she does-the other principals express their characters' frustration and yearning compellingly, particularly when singing or dancing. Working with step dance veterans and innovators Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus (both featured dancers as well, though Oremus is out until mid-April due to an injury), Jones draws on both Irish and African traditions to exhilarating and gorgeously lyrical effect.

Greg Evans, Deadline: Paradise Square comes very close to saving itself from its own impulses - not least from a theatrically disappointing climax of a brief, unterrifying and bloodless riot - by giving star Kalukango the evening's single greatest moment of glory: a powerhouse anthem of anger and defiance called "Let It Burn," in which this wonderful singer castigates the rioters and the destroyers and taunts that the human spirit can survive the destruction of ramshackle structures. As a battle tactic, "Let It Burn" falls a good deal short, but as a vocal exercise for an astonishing singer, the number is a treasure (and might very well hand Kalukango a Tony Award nomination that might otherwise have missed her).

Diep Tran, Broadway News: The musical's score, an impressive mixture of Irish jigs, 19th century work songs and jazz, reinforces the musical's themes of racial harmony and racial division, while driving the show's energy forward. One group number, "Why Should I Die in Springtime," in which the Irish characters lament having to fight in the Civil War, is immediately answered by "I'll Be a Soldier," in which the Black characters declare they would fight if America would let them. It's a brilliant battle in musical form. Bill T. Jones's expansive choreography similarly takes on these themes. Jones combines Irish step dancing, tap dancing, modern break dancing and Haitian Yanvalou, yet creates distinctive dances for the Irish characters and the Black characters. The result is character-motivated choreography that is astounding in its density and gorgeous in appearance.

J. Kelly Nestruck, The Globe and Mail: Unfortunately, for a story set during the Civil War, Paradise Square sometimes seems at war with itself. The captivating choreography is rarely well-integrated into director Moises Kaufman's stand-and-sing staging - which also makes it devilishly difficult to connect emotionally to the characters. The large ensemble, likewise, feels too big on a stage dominated by a giant industrial-looking set piece meant to represent Nellie's bar; it rotates often, and somewhat pointlessly, as it looks pretty much the same on both sides. (Allen Moyer is the designer.)

Chris Jones: NY Daily News: The show genuinely wants to be entertaining, of course, and much of the time it succeeds. It movingly celebrates the power of love and of families we make for ourselves. But it does not want to offer the traditional cathartic comfort of musicals; rather, it seeks to reflect all the pain these struggling characters feel. And thus "Paradise Square" will survive on Broadway only if audiences are willing to see that these artists are doing their best not just to reckon with the past, but to make the radical (for a musical) point that the present is not so much better.

Juan A. Ramirez, Theatrely: Kalukango is a born star, displaying a completely different, equally fully-realized skillset from her Tony-nominated role in last season's Slave Play. She commits fiercely to the book scenes - perhaps fiercely enough to reveal some of its flaws - and brings the house down every time she sings. Her Nelly escapes the 'determined, ahead-of-her-time woman' archetype these roles can often become, fleshing out the character's humanity in a searing, memorable way. She is matched in magnetism by Chilina Kennedy in the role of Annie, Nelly's tough sister-in-law. Kennedy does not chew scenery, does not eat it up - she has a hearty Irish stew onstage, leaving no crumbs. The two women anchor the production even as it sprawls further from cohesion on Allen Moyer's industrial set.

Christian Lewis, Did They Like It: The musical features a talented ensemble led by the powerhouse Joaquina Kalukango (as Nellie, the owner of the tavern where the majority of the action takes place) and the nimble A. J. Shively (as Owen, a masterful dancer Irish immigrant terrified of getting drafted). It is chock-full of impressive dance numbers that pair the percussive rhythmic step dances of the Irish and Black communities. The score is catchy (especially the title song), compelling, and feels period-specific (heavily featuring the fiddle) while appealing to a modern musical theater ear. The highlight of the show is without a doubt "Let it Burn," Kalukango's 11 o'clock number, which receives a standing ovation and will be canonized alongside the greats like "I'm Here," "Lot's Wife," and "Rose's Turn."

Naveen Kumar, Variety: The body can sometimes say more than words, but even the most expressive moves cannot make a coherent case for "Paradise Square." The blunt and belabored history lesson of a new musical set in Manhattan's Five Points, and produced by Garth Drabinsky, purports to be a fable of American race relations. But while conflicts between the neighborhood's Black and Irish residents at times come thrillingly to life through dance, "Paradise Square" is wrong-footed from the jump. For all its spring-loaded set-up, "Paradise Square" quickly runs out of steam, sputtering through a reprise-heavy second act that somehow feels both bloated and rushed. A near-total lack of characterization beyond their historical circumstance invites little emotional investment in the numerous people on stage.

Matt Windman, amNewYork: In an ideal world, the original new Broadway musical "Paradise Square" would live up to its fascinating historical source material: the 19th century Lower Manhattan slum of Five Points, where free Blacks and immigrants lived together up until the Civil War. Although well-meaning and filled with some striking visuals and pointed political commentary, "Paradise Square" is sappy, overstuffed, overlong, and tiresome. If not much else, "Paradise Square" might be an ideal show for educators who want to take their students to a Broadway musical about U.S. history but can't score tickets to "Hamilton." As a homework assignment, the students can research the numerous historical events that are dutifully mentioned or write an essay about the contemporary political concerns (violent insurrection, cultural misappropriation, class tensions, need for empathy).that the show overemphasizes in trying to prove its relevance.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: In "Paradise Square," which opened Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, sex workers and their madam, Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango), come bubble-wrapped with enough important issues to placate the most hardened moralist.The credits reveal that the show is "inspired in part by the songs of Stephen Foster." The songwriter gets no thanks from the book writers, who deem his music racist. Actually, the little bit we hear of those simple Foster ditties is a relief from the bloated tunes surrounding them. Whether the characters are happy or sad, pissed off or just in a funk, they're simply thunderous when they sing. Best of the songs is Nelly's fiery "Let It Burn," not to be confused with "Let It Go" from "Frozen." How much more effective it would be if not preceded by so much aural bombast.

Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast: What makes the show, directed by Moises Kaufman, so current is the villainous presence of New York politician Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), who is worried by the alliances and potential power of two minorities coming together, and formulates a number of despicable schemes to wreck the bar, and the semblance of a multi-cultural community within. In Tiggens, we see Donald Trump and all his discontents down through history-right down to the casual betrayal of the angry and disaffected voters whose support he courts to gain power. The stories on the complicated, jumbled, and overcrowded set do intersect, but what resonates most acutely today is how those in power seek to turn the marginalized against each other in order to maintain power.

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: There are pleasures in "Paradise Square." The terrific dancing tells its own story, a quintessential American (and Broadway) one: How African-American and Irish immigrant dancers learned from one another in New York and created a unique American art form - tap dancing. But "Paradise Square" was largely a disappointment. By the end of its overlong running time, it felt overcrowded and overbearing; its staging too often of the stand in a line at the lip of the stage and stare school of emoting; its score loud, strident and insistent - well-sung, but not especially memorable and not much integrated with the story; its story of dubious historical accuracy and by-the-numbers plotting.

Helen Shaw, Vulture: There is one good thing about the way Paradise Square has been developed into the ground: The ensemble members have had plenty of time to figure out their parts. Allen Moyer's tall, skeletal tenement set gives the two-dozen-strong cast plenty of places to stand, so director Moisés Kaufman often puts them on various levels, staring down at the floor of the bar. If the repetitive elements pall - you will start out amazed by the dancers, then those returns will diminish - you could always cast your eyes up, into the shadows. I had several favorites among the supernumeraries, including a guy who brought his baby to watch the competition and a mandolin player who fell asleep. Appropriately for a show about a neighborhood, the chorus gives us a sense of lives and passions moving just out of the field of focus.

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