5 Reasons Why Paradise Square is Worth a Visit
By: Iris Wiener
May 24, 2022: Paradise Square is the important piece that we don’t see often these days: a great, period musical that teaches its audiences about a poignant slice of history. Set during the Civil War in the Five Points district of lower New York, where Irish immigrants shared space with free, but poor, Black citizens in places like gambling houses and bars, the story is centered on Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango) who runs her own taproom. Audiences are introduced to her interracial family, which includes her white husband (an Irish police officer), and her fast-talking sister-in-law who is married to a Black reverend. He also shelters runaway slaves in search of freedom via the Underground Railroad. Got all that? Despite its mostly forgettable music, confusing premise and lackluster book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan (not to mention an unnecessarily long run time), audiences will get on board quickly, as the story is sweeping. Though the show certainly isn’t perfect, here are our favorite reasons to give Paradise Square a chance:
1. The dancing is extraordinary and unparalleled. The choreography that Bill T. Jones has constructed is a spectacle like no other in theater. Aside from its sensational execution by the largest ensemble on a Broadway stage, it acts as a bridge between the Black and Irish residents, quickly becoming a common language. A.J. Shively, who is now rightfully nominated for a Tony Award, is especially stunning once his feet begin to poetically fly. Step dance veterans Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus add to the exceptional flavor that leaves audiences gasping.
2. Chilina Kennedy is a scene-stealer as Annie, Nelly’s sister-in-law. Audiences will look forward to her stage time, as she adds heart and humor to a story that is sometimes bloated with drollness and elementary plot points (a dance-off to save the day? How original…) She often elicits laughs when she interacts with her husband by putting him in his place, simultaneously adding intensity when needed.
3. Allen Moyer’s set is compelling as it moves frequently in interchangeable, towering pieces of black-scaffolding. It is simplistic in appearance, but in design it is incredibly well planned, truly another character in the story. At moments it is reminiscent of West Side Story, as it moves to every corner of the stage, making space for dueling dancers; other moments are akin to Newsies and In the Heights, with performers singing from multi-tiered pieces representing their apartments and shared experiences.
4. Costume designer Toni Leslie-James expertly delineates class amongst the large cast through her detailed, intelligent pieces. Nellie’s ravishing maroon ensembles are museum quality. Be sure to watch for the upper-class, hoity-toity menagerie of women who pervade a key scene in Act II. Their exquisite gowns are so interesting in their form and features that they steal the scene.
5. Joaquina Kalukango is astonishing as she brings down the house with her 11 o’clock number, “Let it Burn,” building in weight from its start to finish with tears streaming down her face, looks of resolution, perseverance and pain piercing her audiences as she belts. Kalukango is stunning within the entirety of the show, but she offers a master class in powerhouse vocals when the floor is hers. Other standouts include Act I closer “Heaven Save Our Home” and “Someone to Love,” a duet with Kennedy in which Annie comforts her sister-in-law while both women cope with painful losses.
Ethel Barrymore Theater
243 W. 47th St., NYC.
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes, including intermission.
Photography: Kevin Berne