A musical that was in development over the last decade and was last seen by an audience here in the Bay Area, Paradise Square, is planning a Broadway run starting next February.
Set in the multicultural slum known as Five Points, in Lower Manhattan — the same neighborhood that was the setting for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York — Paradise Square centers around a saloon owned by a Black woman who was widowed when her Irish immigrant husband died in the Civil War. And it’s larger setting is the lead-up to the Draft Riots of 1863, in which immigrants rioted and slaughtered Black people in anger over being drafted into a war over slavery.
The musical’s first iteration came in 2012, when it premiered as Hard Times, a kind of experimental production in which Black 47 frontman Larry Kirwan rearranged the classic American songbook of Stephen Foster — he of “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races” fame — to tell the story of Foster’s ultimate alcoholic demise in Five Points alongside the mixing of cultures that arguably gave rise to American popular music and tap dancing. In the Berkeley Rep production, Tony-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones added movement and dance throughout that truly stole the show — the dance numbers tended even to overshadow much of the thin storyline, which actually culminates in a tap-dancing competition.
As director Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project) tells the New York Times, the plan had been to bring Paradise Square to Broadway sooner, but the pandemic break gave the creative team time to improve the script.
“At Berkeley we learned that our story is epic, but we needed to continue focusing on our individual characters,” he says. “And that’s the work that’s occurred.”
The show now has three playwrights credited with the book alongside Kirwan: Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, and Craig Lucas. And while much of the score is credited to Foster, there are original songs credited to Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen, and Masi Asare.
And attached to the show playing the lead role of Nelly is Joaquina Kalukango, who was nominated for a Tony Award for Slave Play. Also in the cast are a couple of cast members from the Berkeley Rep production, including Gabrielle McClinton as Angelina, and A.J. Shively as Owen.
The Berkeley production felt unfortunately overshadowed by Hamilton, being a period piece set in New York, with a set design that was decidedly similar. But hopefully the revisions have brought the piece to a new stage that helps it stand on its own — with Jones’ choreography alone worth the price of admission.
Berkeley Rep has become known for nurturing productions that go on have Broadway runs, some of them highly successful. In the last decade, examples include Green Day’s American Idiot, Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, the musical adaptation of Amelie, and the Temptations jukebox musical Ain’t Too Proud, which remains on Broadway and reopens this fall.
Paradise Square is expected to start previews at New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theater on February 22, and it will open on March 20, 2022.
Top image: Hailee Kaleem Wright (Ensemble), Karen Burthwright (Ensemble), and Sidney Dupont (William Henry Lane) in Paradise Square at Berkeley Rep, January 2019. Photo: Alessandra Mello