Star-making turn: Leading lady makes new tuner 'Paradise Square' a show worth seeing
“Paradise Square” - ★ ★ ★
Theater lovers may not yet know the name of singer/actress Joaquina Kalukango, who stars in “Paradise Square,” the Civil War-set musical that received a rapturous response from Wednesday's opening-night audience at Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre.
That will likely change once word spreads about Kalukango's glorious performance as tavern owner Nelly O'Brien in this ambitious, new Broadway-bound tuner, whose New York opening was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dominated by anthemic tunes and spectacular choreography from two-time Tony Award-winner Bill T. Jones, “Paradise Square” is inspired by the Black Americans and Irish immigrants who called New York City's Five Points neighborhood (described as “America's first slum”) home, whose intermingled cultural traditions gave rise to such art forms as tap dance. But the show, directed by Moises Kaufman, also tackles thornier issues of class, race, power and cultural appropriation - all of which are especially resonant today.
The appealing score - by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (leader of the Celtic rock band Black 47) with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare - consists of original tunes, including the poignant “Breathe Easy” and the rousing title song along with cleverly referenced and re-imagined Stephen Foster tunes “Oh Susanna” (a showstopper) and “De Camptown Races” among others.
Also earning kudos is Jones' expressive choreography, which incorporates Irish and hammerstep choreography by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus. Pairing Black American juba (consisting of stomping, slapping and patting) with Irish step dancing, Jones establishes a conversation between the two folk styles. That conversation is made apparent in the impromptu dance competitions (easily the production's most exhilarating numbers), which reflect the integration of the two styles that will become tap.
The production also benefits from a stellar ensemble led by Kalukango, whose standout performance is marked by powerhouse vocals and palpable warmth. For the record, Kalukango's 11 o'clock number not only stopped the show, it also brought the audience to their feet.
That said, “Paradise Square” needs refocusing and tightening. Too often Nelly gets sidelined by secondary characters who show up at her tavern, share snippets of their back story and then disappear. Well-executed as those vignettes are, we're not really emotionally invested in those characters, which diminishes the impact of their triumphs and tragedies.
Moreover, book writers Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan don't seem to know what to do with the Stephen Foster character, aside from chastising him for culturally appropriating an enslaved people's culture for fame and profit.
Add to that some awkward transitions and puzzling design choices, including often murky lighting, and you have a show that could benefit from some revisions.
Still, the story of Five Points is one worth telling. Set in 1863, the action unfolds in and around Paradise Square, a tavern owned by freeborn Black woman Nelly O'Brien (Kalukango) whose Irish immigrant husband, Willie O'Brien (Matt Bogart), and his pal “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis) are preparing to join the Union Army's all-Irish regiment.
Helping run the tavern is Willie's spitfire sister and Nelly's right-hand woman Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy) and her husband, Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (the terrific Nathaniel Stampley), who assists escaped slaves traveling the Underground Railroad. Among them is Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont) who's awaiting his beloved Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton) to join him in New York. Nelly welcomes Washington into her home along with Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively), Annie's nephew newly arrived from Ireland.
To make ends meet, the exuberant, well-matched Washington and Owen dance for tavern patrons accompanied by pianist Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), the incognito composer Stephen Foster slumming Five Points for inspiration.
Meanwhile, local boss Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), fearing the political power of a united Black and Irish community, exploits the growing racial and economic resentment stoked by the establishment in July 1863 of a federal draft that conscripted Irish immigrants while excluding Black Americans.
It's a chilling reminder of the depth and the persistence of such disaffection. And yet, “Paradise Square” concludes on a hopeful note for a harmonious future - one not yet realized, but possible.
Location: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 5. Also 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Nov. 24 and Dec. 1. No performance Thursday, Nov. 25, and no 7:30 p.m. performance Nov. 28 and Dec. 5
Running time: About 2 hours 40 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Nearby garages
COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of performance or antigen test taken within 6 hours of performance. Identification and masks mandatory. No children younger than 2 admitted.