by Lynn on May 17, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City. Open ended run.

Book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan

Music by Jason Howland

Lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare

Conceived by Larry Kirwan

Additional music by Larry Kirwan

Direction by Moisés Kaufman

Music supervision, music direction and orchestrations by Jason Howland

Choreography by Bill T. Jones

Scenic design by Allen Moyer

Costumes by Toni-Leslie James

Lighting by Donald Holder

Sound by Jon Weston

Projection design by Wendall K. Harrington, shawn Edward Boyle

Cast: Matt Bogart

Kevin Dennis

John Dossett

Sidney DuPont

Jacob Fishel

Aisha Jackson

Joaquina Kalukango

Chilina Kennedy

Gabrielle McClinton

A.J. Shively

Nathaniel Stampley

Dreadful. Every aspect of this enterprise is relentless in its desperate efforts to please and impress.

The Story. New York City, lower Manhattan, in the slum area known as The Five Points. The year is about 1863. Blacks and Irish live in harmony in this slum. The focal point of the musical is the seedy Paradise Square Bar owned and operated by Nelly O’Brien. She is a Black woman married to Willie O’Brien, an Irishman. Willie’s sister is Annie Lewis, married to Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis, a Black man. Annie also works in the bar with her sister-in-law Nelly. To the outside world the Paradise Square Bar is the home of prostitutes, degenerates and other miscreants. To the people who frequent the place it’s a safe haven from the outside world.

Into this story comes Owen Duignan, Annie’s nephew. He’s newly arrived from Ireland seeking a better life and hopes Annie can help him find work etc. Also newly arrived is a runaway slave named Washington Henry who has come there to wait for his girlfriend (also a runaway slave) Angelina Baker. Washington Henry refuses to leave and hide because he promised Angelina he would wait for her so they could both go north to safety.

During the comings and goings characters such as Willie O’Brien goes off to fight in the Civil War and ‘Lucky’ Mike Quinlan comes back without an arm that he lost in the fighting. Over time there is conscription. The white male population has to fight while the Black males are not allowed to enlist. ‘Lucky’ can’t get a job because he’s maimed and blames the Blacks who have jobs.  Animosity results.

Owen Duignan will be conscripted unless he can bribe a person responsible for picking names of those to be conscripted. Owen hopes to get the money by winning a dance contest and giving the money as a bribe to the guy picking the names. Then Washington Henry enters the contest too—he needs the money so he and Angelina Baker can escape. Emotions are high.  

The Production. A map of the Five Points area of Lower Manhattan forms the backdrop of Allen Moyer’s set. Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango) enters and provides a quick lesson in the Five Points. A projection of what it is today is a metaphor for the musical. A video of the modern area of the Five Points is projected. Cars and motorcycles whiz by like a blur. People scurry along. It’s hard to tell the racial makeup of the people in the video. Nelly points to a sign in the video and says that that is now called Worth Ave. You can’t read the sign because it’s blurry and obscured. As I said, whatever that video was supposed to represent is incomprehensible because of lack of clarity and focus. As is this musical.

The book of Paradise Square by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, is a mishmash of stories, tangential off-shoots and so many disjointed loose threads that one can hardly tell what it’s about. We are led to believe that trouble started only when ‘Lucky’ Mike Quinlan came home maimed, couldn’t find a job and blamed the Blacks. A shady politician named Frederic Tiggens was always angling to cause trouble for the Paradise Square Bar and bided his time until he could cause trouble.

The show is choked with song after song by Jason Howland (music) and Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare (lyrics) with additional music by Larry Kirwan. Often songs follow each other without leaving breathing room to think about what the subject was before another song followed, introducing another theme or subject. Every song is delivered as if it’s a do or die anthem, blared at the top of the voice, urgent, desperate, frantic.  Perhaps the most shameless is “Let It Burn”, sung with impassioned power and real tears by Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango). At the end of it there is a moment when she holds the high note (as written and directed) guaranteed to stir the audience to rise in the middle of it for a standing ovation. Wretched, manipulative excess. Kalukango is a fine actor and singer. She has style and a formidable regality that she gives her characterization. But the desperation in a lot of the singing to move the audience is the worst kind of Broadway schlock and seems so dishonest and diminishes the characterization.

As Nelly’s sister-in-law Annie Lewis, Chilina Kennedy enters in a rage for some reason and never lets up. A.J. Shively gives an emotional performance as Owen Duignan. He is also a fine step-dancer and has many opportunities to prove it. Matching him in intense emotion is Sidney DuPont as Washington Henry. I hope someone takes Mr. DuPont in hand and tells him the importance of enunciating what he is saying because I could not readily make out anything he said, he seems to have such an aversion to consonants. His lines came out in an indistinct slur—impassioned to be sure, but incomprehensible.  I know the book is problematic, but not to ensure that the audience can actually understand what you are saying is unforgivable.  

Bill T. Jones’ reputation as a gifted choreographer has preceded him. I also get the sense that he thinks his choreography is the star of the show, there is so much of it, upstaging so many scenes. Often the choreography of one scene begins in the previous scene, usually upstage, when a character is speaking downstage. Talk about pulling focus. Choreography is there to aid and enhance the proceedings, not to upstage and ambush the entire show. Director Moisés Kaufman seems overwhelmed by the whole size of the show. At the end of the day Paradise Square is a noisy, desperate harangue of the audience to love it, appreciate it, take it seriously as important and meaningful. Like being bludgeoned with its own importance.

Comment. Hell would be having to sit through Paradise Square again.

Produced by Garth Drabinsky and 38 other producers.

Open ended run

Running Time: 2 ½ hours approx. 1 intermission

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Robert Missen May 17, 2022 at 12:14 pm

Harsh. (My one-word descriptor of this review.)

I did not mind that the work was largely through-choreographed, So much can be conveyed through movement, just as so much can be conveyed through song in opera. Fosse? Twyla Tharp’s shows?

Chilina Kennedy had one meltingly beautiful song.

Not a work for the ages, it’s true. But we enjoyed this much more than A Strange Loop.


2 Lynn May 23, 2022 at 11:05 pm

We agree to disagree. And sometimes, having to fork over an exorbitant amount of money for a mess is not a happy occasion. Your references of Fosse and Twyla Tharp’s shows are misplaced when commenting on choreography. Please go back and re-read the comments for context. Really, you enjoyed this more than A Strange Loop? Woow! We REALLY agree to disagree.
Hope you’re well, Bob.
Best, Lynn