Five Points tavern owner Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango, left) kicks up her heels with sister-in-law and helper Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy) in “Paradise Square.” | Kevin Berne
Powerful music, meaningful dances contribute to the emotionally intricate storytelling, set in 1863 Manhattan.
Before its scheduled March opening on Broadway, “Paradise Square” has a bit of revising to do. A very small bit.
Conceived by Larry Kirwan, directed by Moises Kaufman and running only through Dec. 5 at the Loop’s Nederlander Theatre, the new musical is shaped by visually lush, emotionally intricate storytelling largely created through Bill T. Jones’ vivid choreography and Jason Howland’s gripping score. Both music and movement effectively draw on influences from Africa to Ireland, including the U.S.A. of 1863 and 2021. The artistry spans the globe and plumbs the centuries in creating the world of Lower Manhattan’s impoverished, racially mixed Five Points neighborhood in the thick of the Civil War.
Remembered mostly as a slum, Five Points was also a comparatively integrated place, the musical tells us. The riots of 1863 showed how fragile the neighborhood was. The rioters were primarily poor white immigrants who first burned first government buildings and then Black-owned businesses in protest of unemployment and President Lincoln’s recently instituted draft.
At one point, the spotlight goes fully to Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango), the daughter of enslaved parents and owner of Five Points’ Paradise Square bar. She tells the audience that living in Five Points was like living in a future you’d never think could be realized. (That’s a paraphrase). There’s pride and prescience in the words, intersected with tragedy and optimism.
“Paradise Square” has a lot of plot cover before the riots. We learn Nelly married Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart), a white man enlisted to fight the south. Willie’s (white) sister Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy) helps at Nelly’s bar and is married to the Rev. Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley), a free Black Abolitionist Protestant.
Complications pile on: Annie’s fresh-off-the-boat Irish nephew Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively) arrives at Nelly’s needing a room at the same time as Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), newly escaped from a plantation and separated from his beloved Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton). Finally, there’s Lucky Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis), a white Irishman back from the war and increasingly embittered when he’s unable to find work.
Sidney DuPont plays Washington Henry, newly arrived after his escape from a plantation.
Evil politico Frediric Tiggens (John Dossett) is one-note, but it’s not an inaccurate note and it doesn’t stop the production from laying bare one of the world’s greatest magic tricks: Convincing people that their allies are their enemies because of their skin color. Dossett’s message is that the only way to get your piece of the American Dream, in this version, is to kill the roots instead of trimming the branches that stopped blooming long ago.
Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare’s lyrics capture sweeping issues and personal dilemmas alike, even when the book (by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan) is overshadowed by projection designer Wendall K. Harrington’s yellow-journalism-tinged newspaper clippings. Of larger importance than an over-reliance on projection design: “Paradise Square” shows how wealthy white Yankees used race to instigate and fan racial tension. Fear is a slick, effective conduit to hatred, and “Paradise Square” shows precisely how it becomes weaponization via a grooming process thick with misinformation. It’s impossible miss the fact that the same dynamic still thrives.
In the final third of the two-hour-and-35-minute staging, the telling part of storytelling headlines of fires, riots, unemployment and the draft dwarves the actors. Still, there’s not a significantly clunky scene as the plot plays out on set designer Allen Moyer’s “Hamilton”-meets-“West Side Story” flexible scaffolding. The music and the lyrics cover the ground like rain, the story flourishing in Jones’ collaborative dances (Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus are credited with Irish and Hammerstep choreo).
The score includes scorching anthems (“Burn”) and reclaimed Stephen Foster minstrels (“Oh! Susanna”), taken back to their origins among the enslaved of the American South, all while white bar pianist Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel) is moving to monetize them for himself. From ballad (the incandescent “Breathe Easy”) to uptempo banger (“Ring, Ring the Bango”) the score doesn’t have a weak number. In all, it’s a rich, relevant world inside an outlier bar in the eye of a maelstrom, star turns by Kalukango and DuPont at its center. It’s also a production that deserves an audience that will cheer for it, loudly.