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Carole Di Tosti ‘Paradise Square,’ a Breathtaking, Exquisite, Mindblowing, American Musical +

by Carole Di Tosti
May 8, 2022

First there was Lin Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire’s Hamilton which codified our founding fathers through a current lens and brought them into living reality with a new understanding of the birth of our nation. Now, there is the musical Paradise Square which brings to vivid life the embodiment of the American Dream during the Civil War, 1863, after President Lincoln instituted the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.

The phenomenal, complex musical is nothing short of a heart-rending emotional shakedown for feeling Americans at this precarious time in our history. Currently, it runs at the Barrymore Theater creating buzz and furor through word of mouth. With Book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan (conceived by Kirwan with additional music inspired by the songs of Stephen Foster), music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Nalthan Tysen & Masi Asare, the production’s success is a collaborative effort, and that is a testament to the individuals whose creativity and flexibility brought the spectacular, dramatic elements together coherently with symbolic, thematic power.

With the actors, Alex Sanchez’s Musical Staging, Bill T. Jones genius choreography and the enlightened and anointed direction of Moises Kaufman, the demonstrated will and determination to make this production leap into the firmament cannot be easily dismissed or inconveniently dispatched for whatever reason. (reference Jesse Green of the New York Times)

The setting of this thematically current musical takes place in a slum of cast offs and immigrants who are making the American experiment their own and bringing equanimity to New York City like never before. On a patch of ground in the Five Points that is home to saloon Paradise Square, proprietor Nelly O’Brien (the incredible Joaquina Kalukango who champions the character and all she symbolizes), has created her own version of Eden with her Irish American husband Willie O’Brien (the superb Matt Bogart). There, all are worthy and respected.

Nelly exemplifies the goodness and hope of our American glory and opportunity through hard work, faith and community. Born in the saloon from the oppressed, her father a slave who escaped to the North via the underground railroad, her mixed race marriage is uniquely blessed. It is just like that of her sister-in-law Annie O’Brien Lewis (the superb Chilina Kennedy), married to Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (the equally superb Nathaniel Stampley), a Quaker and underground railroad stationmaster. Both couples have prospered, are decent and shed truly Christian light and love on all they meet.

Nelly, the principals and company present life in “Paradise Square,” in the opening song. This is the seminal moment; book writers establish the overarching theme, the hope of America, an Edenic place where all races and creeds get along without division or rancor.

“We are free we love who we want to love with no apology. If you landed in this square then you dared to risk it all, at the bottom of the ladder, there’s nowhere left to fall,” Nelly sings as the patrons echo her and dance. The opening moments clarify what is at stake for Nelly and all who pass through the doors of the saloon. It is a safe haven, where in other areas of the city, the wealthy uptown, for example, these “low class” immigrant whites, and blacks are unwanted and unwelcome. It’s a clear economic divide which grows more stringent as the war’s ferocity intensifies and money becomes the way in to safety and the wall that directs the Irish and other immigrants to the Civil War’s front lines; one more hurdle to overcome after surviving cataclysms and impoverishment in their home countries.

Of course, the symbolic reference is not lost and we anticipate that Eden achieved is not Eden sustained, though Nelly has managed to effect her safe place during the first three years of the war. What keeps her energized is her spirit of hope and her dream which she intends to promote throughout the war until her husband, Captain O’Brien of the 69th regiment of fighting Irish, returns once the Union army has won its righteous cause. Nelly and Willie’s touching song and flashback to their first meeting reveals that they are color blind (“You Have Had My Heart”), and move beyond race and ethnicity to the loving, Edenic ideal which uplifts spirit over flesh and lives by faith rather than sight.

At the top of the production Nelly shows a black and white projection of the modern Five Points and the place where her saloon used to be, as she merges the present with the past and suggests she is relating her story, a story that won’t be found in history books. It is a “story on our own terms,” that exemplifies unity in a community of races and religions bounded by love, concern and financial equality as all struggle to make ends meet, and with each other’s help, get through the tribulations of the Civil War’s impact on their lives.

The exceptional opening song and dance number resolves in a send off of Willie O’Brien and ‘Lucky Mike Quinlan’ (Kevin Dennis) to the battlefield. Both rely on an inner reservoir of faith and Irish pluck, knowing the prayers of the Reverend and all in Paradise Square go before them. The vibrant titular number is uplifting and beautiful as it highlights the American experiment which British royals doomed to failure and Benjamin Franklin ironically stated-our government is “a republic if you can keep it.”

Though the republic has been divided in a Civil War, folks like those who come to Nelly’s saloon believe in nation’s sanctity and are keeping the dream alive, if the South has abandoned it. Indeed, as the book writers suggest, the immigrants and those of passion and heart will hold the dream in their hearts and attempt to manifest its reality because freedom, respect and equanimity is worth dying for. With irony the book’s writers reveal this is something the wealthy do not believe because they don’t have to. Their world rejects the values and ideals of those who people Paradise Square. Without principles worth dying for, the hearts of the Uptowners are filled with greed for power and money. These are the passions that drive the rich, symbolized in the scenes with Party Boss and political strategist Frederic Tiggens (the excellent and talented John Dossett).

Complications develop when Annie’s nephew Owen (the wonderfully talented A.J. Shively), travels from Ireland at the same time that Washington Henry (the wonderfully talented Sidney DuPont), escapes with Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton). Traveling on the underground railroad from Tennessee, Henry arrives in New York City without his love, whom he waits for, braving the dangers of capture. Owen and Henry joined by Annie and the Reverend, a stationmaster on the underground railroad who receives Henry, all sing (“I’m Coming”). The young men, like hundreds before them, seek freedom and prosperity believing in the opportunities afforded by the shining city.

Reverend Samuel alerts Annie that Henry escaped from border state Tennessee which is not covered in the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, when Henry says he can’t go to Canada, but must wait for Angelina Baker, the Reverend fears for all of them. Nevertheless, guided by faith and Nelly’s extension of grace to Washington Henry, their community stands together and Owen and Henry bunk congenially in a tiny room above Paradise Square saloon.

Additionally, stranger Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), arrives in their society to beg Nelly for a job. Moore, an excellent piano player with a drinking problem, appears legitimate, so Nelly makes a bargain with him and arranges for Owen, Henry and Moore to create dance and song entertainments to earn their keep. The dancing and singing to a cool multi-ethnic version of “Camptown Races” effected by Henry and Owen who are friendly competitors at this juncture, show the prodigious singing and dancing talents of Shively and Dupont. Guided by Bill T. Jones’ brilliant, energetic and enlightened choreography, the dancing in this production is thematic and symbolic, with unique stylized flourishes that shine a light on the exceptional talents of the principals and the ensemble.

Jones showcases the dances with ethnic cultural elements: for Shively and his group-Irish step dancing; for DuPont-Juba African American dancing that evolved from plantation life. Jones’ wondrous evocations are present throughout. When Henry sings “Angelina Baker” we revert to the plantation where both met. Profoundly rendered through Jones choreography and musical staging (Alex Sanchez), the ensembles’ stylized movements evoke the field slaves soul burdened and bowed, as two plantation overseers tap dance the repetitive torment and the beats of slavery’s oppression and pain. Just incredible!

Uptown Party Boss Frederic Tiggens (the excellent John Dossett) is the villainous snake, whose intent is to divide voters, secure political power and keep wages low by targeting the haven of equanimity, Paradise Square. As a disrupter, he focuses on a “divide and conquer” strategy. Stoking division when the opportunity arises, he is hell bent on destroying Nelly’s prosperous Eden which threatens his political power block. Thus, he foments resentment between the Irish and the blacks when he discovers that the Reverend doesn’t fire a worker to give a job to ‘Lucky Mike,’ a war amputee abandoned by the government he fought for. (“Bright Lookout,” “Tomorrow’s Never Guaranteed.”).

Enraged at the injustice of not being hired by Reverend Samuel who can’t do what he wants or he will be fired himself, ‘Lucky Mike’ becomes the pawn of Tiggens, who exploits his anger instead of helping him. Expressing the plight of many returning vets then and now, Mike’s anger grows into a raging fire with no outlet until it finally explodes in violence. Tiggens’ trouble-making continues with his connections serving financial writs on Nelly and Paradise Square that must be paid off. When she confers with family about raising money, Owen contributes his cultural grace, suggesting a dance festival competition like they had in Ireland. With the festival Nelly will raise enough to pay off the fines. Once again, Nelly and family resilience and hope shine through the darkness of Tiggens’ political machinations to overwhelm them.

Meanwhile, the Reverend is informed by his Quaker friends that Henry has killed his plantation master in Tennessee and is wanted for murder. The Reverend tells Annie who insists she will accompany him and Henry to the next station on the railroad. The song “Gentle Annie” is a humorous revelation of their marriage: Annie’s feisty character tempered by Samuel’s peaceful nature, their shared values and the closeness of their relationship. Kennedy and Stampley give authentic, spot-on performances that solidify one more link in the ineffable chain of love that helps make Paradise Square (the saloon and the production) a place of unity and grace.

A strength of this musical is that the dramatic tension increases and doesn’t let up for a minute. The arc of development in conflicts and intricate, complex themes shows Nelly’s Paradise Square, like Lincoln’s Union strained and stressed. As Tiggens tightens the financial noose on Nelly’s Eden, the announcement of the War Draft threatens the immigrants. Men between the ages of 25-45 must serve, unless they pay $300 dollars to exempt themselves. Lincoln’s conscription is a desperate attempt to revitalize the fight; the Union is on the verge of collapse and the American experiment is in grave jeopardy. Nelly’s dream and Lincoln’s hope of a democratic union run on parallel tracks along with the underground railroad.

For the blacks, the idea that people had inalienable rights and could live together with respect, dignity .and equanimity as a community, the idea that people themselves had the power to sustain such a republic, was keenly felt. Blacks wanted desperately to fight against the Southern oppressors, but were forbidden. (“I’d Be a Soldier”). The Irish, like Owen and the other immigrants, were looking for a better life not war (“Why Should I Die in Springtime?”), but they are ground down by their poverty and question the efficacy of dying for a cause they didn’t create and can’t afford to get out of.

When Owen and the ensemble of Irishmen/immigrants and Henry and the ensemble of blacks sing these numbers, the power of the lyrical music drives home the differences. Both groups embrace the American ideal but are being denied achieving it in reality. As the anger of ‘Lucky Mike’ gains advocacy, it fuels fear in Owen because, for him, the Draft is unjust; he doesn’t have the money. Nelly, for the first time tells ‘Lucky Mike’ to leave her bar as he tries to rally protestors for his (Tiggens propagandized) cause.

As Nelly inspires and encourages her patrons telling them they must not “let the draft break us, that’s what those Uptown bastards want,” an Irishman comes with news that does bow her, Captain Willie O’Brien’s death. But for the Reverend and Annie (“Prayer”), and Nelly’s moral imperative to maintain the saloon’s mission, Nelly would break. As she attempts to gain comfort and inner resolve, the Reverend and Annie confront Henry about murdering his master. In the incredible “Angelina Baker” sung by DuPont with the dancers evoking the Tennessee plantation terrors, we understand his justification for killing.

By the end of Act I, Nelly, Annie, the Reverend, Owen, Henry and the patrons stand on a precipice as the war and malevolent forces threaten to overcome them. Nelly sings, “I keep holding on to hope for a world just out of view, but that hope I have comes at a cost and the cost comes due.” But it is in the song’s refrain that Joaquina Kalukango sings for the ages. Nelly prays with grace and dignity: “Heaven Save Our Home.” Kalukango’s Nelly becomes the intercessor who has made the ultimate sacrifice. All those she loves in Paradise Square are in jeopardy. Her Eden hangs by a spider’s web. As we identify with her prayer, Kalukango’s Nelly stands in the gap for all who are threatened by war and oppression, or unseen forces that would trammel down the sanctity of life. In her portrayal, as she attempts to touch the heart of God, she enthralls our humanity. It is what live theater is all about.

In the transition to Act II, book writers take us to wealthy Uptown New York City. The set changes from the dark saloon, three level platforms, box cages and hard scrabble lines and angles to light, airy, plush furniture in a luxurious drawing room where the wealthy Mr. Tiggens, Amelia Tiggens and Uptown women are being entertained by Milton Moore. Moore presents new versions of songs he culturally appropriated from those he’s heard sung by immigrants and blacks in the Five Points. The scene brings heartbreak at the revelation that “Milton Moore” has been the cover for Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel).

In a fascinating and ingenious twist in the arc of development, Foster, revitalized by his time in Paradise Square, exploits its greatness, democracy and vibrancy. He brags to Tiggens about his inspired time and unwittingly reveals what Nelly and the others plan. The scene is another dynamo that spills over into chaos when Foster returns to Paradise Square and confronts Nelly, who is arranging to financially save her saloon, Owen and Henry with the dance festival. Foster’s betrayal is a stinging blow. Though he apologizes and attempts to salve the wound by telling Nelly she encouraged his reformation, the danger he reigns down on them is unforgivable. Too late, she ejects him; but the damage has been done. All that is left is to hope that the dance festival brings in enough money to save her saloon and Owen and Henry.

The dance comes off in, another incredible scene with Jones’ amazing choreography front and center as Shively’s Owens and DuPont’s Henry compete, this time not so congenially. There is a winner. You’ll just have to see the show to find out. But the competition doesn’t have the desired effect. Subsequently, New York City undergoes its own class war as the immigrants go uptown in a rage to protest. The NYC Draft Riots, a well documented catastrophic debacle (50 buildings burned, 119 people dead) with destruction, death looting and burning lasts for three days until the US army quells the rioting. As the rioters set fire to Paradise Square, Kalukango’s Nelly confronts them and delivers a message (“Let it Burn”) that defies description in power and spiritual glory.

“Inside this little building is a rare and special lot; we somehow found each other and look what that has wrought; a place you are afraid of, a world you’ll never know; you can take it in a flash; you can burn it down to ash and then out of ash we’ll grow; if you think we’ll run away, you’ve got a lot to learn we are stronger than your fire, and I say let it burn.”

Nelly realizes her Edenic dream continues in greater power without a building to house it. Thus, she gives up the one thing she worked incredibly hard to keep with the knowledge that Paradise Square and all it symbolizes to her is within her soul forever. It is for future generations to manifest and make her Edenic dream a reality.

How the creative team and Kalukango deliver this moment is miraculous. What the show kindles in those receptive to its messages and themes heals, strengthens and affirms. It is the glory of what our country can be in the resilience of the human spirit that uplifts freedom from the boot of financial, moral, ethical oppression and evil in all its forms.

As I watched this production, I couldn’t help but align its “dangerous” democratic themes to events around the world and in our own country. Nelly’s message is the Ukrainians’s message to Vladamir Putin in his unjust war and attempt to destroy Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities with his Stalinist communist terror which cannot succeed. Similarly, I thought of the ultra extremist right wing politicos in the U.S., who would make women heel to their oppression by criminalizing abortion to the point of making it tantamount to homicide, while sanctifying, legitimizing rape. (The rapist becomes a father, bonded to the child and mother.)

The Supreme Court in attempting to overturn settled law, effects a second insurrection more damaging than that of the coup conspiracy by Donald Trump and QAnon Republicans on 6th January. When Kalukango’s Nelly sings her cries for safety and freedom, affirming both by the conclusion, she intercedes for all Americans who still believe with Lincoln in government of, by and for the people. The lrich minority are incapable of hearing such cries from the spirit. They only want to rule like despots.

The values and themes heightened in Paradise Square are truly Christian, American and democratic. The production is a vital happening during a time when political terrorist forces inside our country conspire with foreign adversaries to nullify our constitution and foundations of government based on self-evident truths in our Declaration of Independence; that all are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. There is no musical on Broadway today which best represents the American spirit and ideals.

If this does not sound like something you might like, then especially go see it.

Broadway Podcast Network Ruthie Fierberg’s Why We Theater +

by Ruthie Fierberg
April 8, 2022

Ruthie Fierberg: I cannot thank you all enough for listening and for allowing me to experiment and try new things this season, like our mini episodes and the Why We Theatre Now's, which brings us to today's Why We Theatre Now April 2022. I have to be honest; I haven't seen anything lately that has riled me up to the point of needing to fix things, of honing in on a problem and asking, How the heck did we get here and how do we get out? But I have seen a couple of shows that taught me new history and pushed me to ask new questions. This past Saturday, I saw Paradise Square, the new musical from Tectonic Theater Project, which birthed The Laramie Project.

Tectonic's artistic director Moisés Kaufman helms this original musical set in Paradise Square, a section of the Five Points neighborhood in downtown Manhattan. I had never heard of this neighborhood. Apparently, it was founded in 1809 and persisted for about 70 years, and so I hadn't heard of its subsection either. Apparently the Five Points was the first slum in America, but much more notably, and as portrayed in the musical, it was a place where Blacks and whites, mainly immigrants, mixed socially and even by marriage. Imagine that! The musical Paradise Square takes place in exactly 1863, which may sound familiar as it was the middle of the Civil War and the year of the historically infamous draft riots. The musical centers around the Paradise Square Saloon, owned by a free Black woman named Nelly, who is married to her love, a white Irish immigrant. Nellie's white sister-in-law, Annie, married a Black reverend. And the musical showcases this site, The Saloon, as a site of interracial unity and as an explosive den of heat and dance and music and survival. This is the musical that this season has been desperate for. The book balances a lot of storylines. There is a runaway slave and his girlfriend, a young Irish immigrant, trying to avoid the Civil War draft, Black men wishing they were allowed to serve. Soldiers returning from war, unable to find work. A white pianist appropriating Black stories to write minstrel music, infighting over job shortages, all against the backdrop of a neighborhood where Black and white folks actually already see each other as equals.

That, to me, was the difference. Every one of these storylines, every one of these beats speaks to the pathos and even the ethos of why we theater. And I could probably do an entire series just on the issues raised as part of the nuances of Paradise Square. But what stood out most to me was the way that even in 1863, people could forgive a lot. They could understand a lot. They could have compassion for a lot, but, quote, taking someone's job...that was insurmountable. It's a story told over and over and over. We saw it in Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winner Sweat. We saw it in Dominique Morriseau's Skeleton Crew. We hear it in the rhetoric of government leaders, of aspiring government leaders in countries all around the world today. They're taking our jobs. This seems to be the line that constantly divides. And so I'm going to investigate that for myself and maybe on a future episode of the podcast, but got to let it marinate a little bit. Paradise Square just opened April 3rd at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. Grab your tickets. Go. Please, please, please go. I was moved to tears twice in Act One, pushed to sobs in Act Two. It's a story about what is kind of a blip on the great timeline of humanity, but such a significant story of people. And I do feel better for having learned about this time, place and community. And I'd actually be interested to hear which of these issues calls out to you the most. So hit me up.

REVIEW: Fraught with America’s strife, the new Broadway musical ‘Paradise Square’ gives its all +

by Chris Jones
April 3, 2022

Jaws clenched, limbs firing and hearts on the line: That’s what the admirable cast of the gutsy “Paradise Square” is delivering at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. They’re led by a blockbuster lead performance from Joaquina Kalukango, who makes her audience care about the struggling denizens of her character Nelly O’Brien’s titular saloon partly through the talents of the multi-tasking young composer Jason Howland, but mostly by her resolute force of will.

The visceral intensity of all the performances in this new musical — set in a bar in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan during the New York draft riots of 1863 — surely is indicative not just of the long, hard slog to beat back COVID-19 and wrestle an original musical to Broadway.

It also matches the themes of a show wrestling mightily with not just a notorious part of the history of New York City, but the ongoing racial acrimony still slapping at a fraught nation. Clearly, it’s part of a controversial veteran producer’s wish to finish a weighty musical triptych: Garth Drabinsky sees “Paradise Square” as a prequel to his “Showboat” and “Ragtime.”

But times have changed. The wheels of a dream are not so widely seen to be turning forward anymore. Musicals are newly fraught.

Clarified, intensified and inestimably improved since its less-cohesive Chicago tryout, “Paradise Square” focuses on how poor Irish immigrants shared a neighborhood with Black Americans, intermarrying, exchanging cultures and sharing music and dance. That halcyon moment, that potential vision of an ideal society, the musical suggests, is blown up when the Uptown bosses figure out that Black Americans and Irish represent a dangerous political coalition if allowed to remain aligned. A draft offers an opportunity to divide and conquer. The Irish start to see themselves as canon fodder in someone else’s war. A “little piece of Eden” is no more.

Long in gestation under Moises Kaufman’s modestly toned direction, “Paradise Square” cycled through several book writers: Larry Kirwan originated the project with the music of Stephen Foster, who actually lived in Five Points and whose songs pop up here. Craig Lucas followed and then Christina Anderson, whose name appears first on Broadway.

Howland stuck with the project, conducts from the pit and wrote four more fine numbers since the Chicago tryout. Lyrics are by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. Choreography is by Bill T. Jones, although he has not been up front and center as the show neared Broadway.

All of the writerly comings and goings can be felt at times as Allen Moyer’s turntable set spins, although far less than in Chicago, thanks to the unifying efforts of Howland’s growing suite of music, which is rich, earnest and emotionally potent.

The Irish contingent is led by the powerhouse Chilina Kennedy, whose character Annie is married to a Black reverend, movingly played by Nathaniel Stampley. When I saw the show at its tryout, it felt like there were two leads. Not any more. This is now Nelly’s story, as it should be, and it is to Kennedy’s credit that she anchors so potently but never pulls more than her share of focus.

“Paradise Square” still struggles with something at its core for which it feels unfair to blame the writers, since it flows from an American schism — is the very idea of a harmonic 1860s co-existence between Blacks and the Irish a false equivalency? Surely, you would not now see a scene that happened in the original tour of “Riverdance,” where a couple of cheery Black hoofers started watching cheery Irish steppe dancers and — presto! ― turned it into tap. Melting pot theories of entertainment are toast, at least in progressive circles.

But a consequence is that the show cannot decide whether Nelly’s bar (Nelly is married to an Irish solider, played by Matt Bogart) is paradise or not. Is the villain Uptown or the notion of American exceptionalism as embodied in “Ragtime?” Thus a kind of dramaturgical whiplash haunts the material, especially when a young impoverished Irishman, Owen Duigan (the sweet-footed A.J. Shively) fights a tour-de-force dance contest with Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), an escaped slave on the run and a man trying to reunite with his lover Angelina (Gabrielle McClinton). The audience does not know for whom to cheer or even if they should be clapping their hands at all.

The show genuinely wants to be entertaining, of course, and much of the time it succeeds. It movingly celebrates the power of love and of families we make for ourselves. But it does not want to offer the traditional cathartic comfort of musicals; rather, it seeks to reflect all the pain these struggling characters feel. And thus “Paradise Square” will survive on Broadway only if audiences are willing to see that these artists are doing their best not just to reckon with the past, but to make the radical (for a musical) point that the present is not so much better.

“Paradise Square” is on board with changes that many on Broadway are hoping will happen with major big-budget musicals in the post-George Floyd era; as a pioneer, COVID and all, it plows a difficult but courageous road.

Garth Drabinsky’s new Broadway musical Paradise Square shows an old producer can learn new tricks +

by J. Kelly Nestruck
April 3, 2022

Count me among those who had counted Garth Drabinsky out.

I didn’t believe the Canadian producer would ever find backers to bring another show to Broadway – but Paradise Square, his latest musical, opened there at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York on Sunday.

Does Drabinsky – whose 20-odd-year absence from the Great White Way stems from the bankruptcy of his former company Livent, and his subsequent conviction on fraud and forgery charges – know how to put together a show to the tastes and demands of Broadway audiences this millennium, however? Especially one on the fraught, still hotly contested subject that has always interested him above all else: race relations in American history?

Another surprise: The answer is, mostly, yes.

Paradise Square shows Drabinsky stretching himself and his creative producing practices, evolving them for a time we’re told is one of racial reckoning. It certainly tackles the intersection of race, class and immigration in a more au courant way than Sousatzka, his flop that died in Toronto in 2017 – and is more inclusively practise-what-you-preach behind the scenes than the well-regarded Ragtime musical that Livent opened on Broadway in 1998.

Paradise Square – which, with a long list of creators, past and present, suggests a producer-driven project – takes place in the Five Points neighbourhood of Lower Manhattan during the American Civil War. But it paints a very different picture of that area and era than the lawless, violent one seen in Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York.

Here, Five Points may be poor and crowded but it is also a “paradise,” an “Eden,” a vision of what’s described as a still unrealized America future because of the presence of free Black people and white immigrants living peacefully and intermarrying.

Nellie O’Brien (an on-the-rise Joaquina Kalukango) is the prime representative of the possibilities. She’s a Black bar owner and in a passionate marriage with Willie (Matt Bogart), a white Irish-American who is off to fight for the Union forces and the end of slavery in the musical’s exciting opening scene.

Nellie runs the bar with Willie’s sister Annie (normally played by Canadian star Chilina Kennedy, out because of COVID-19 the day I was in New York; her vibrant understudy Kennedy Caughell was no short substitute). Annie is in an interracial marriage herself, with Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley), who is prevented from enlisting because he’s Black and instead works down on the docks.

Their drinking establishment is also a place for workers of all races to organize for fair pay in the face of a common foe – the elite of Manhattan, whose businesses are tied to the spoils of slavery – and for newcomers to take shelter.

Two of those newcomers form Paradise Square’s third interracial relationship – a friendship that turns sour and illustrates the tensions behind the Civil War draft protests of 1863 that turned into a devastating and deadly race riot, in which this “paradise” was lost as a quarter of the Black population left the island of Manhattan.

Owen (A.J. Shively), Willie’s nephew, is fresh off the boat from Ireland – and having escaped impoverishment now finds himself in mortal terror of being conscripted to the front lines of a bloody war. He ends up sharing a room above Nellie’s bar with Washington (the excellent Sidney DuPont), a Black man escaping enslavement, on his way from the South to Canada through the Underground Railroad.

While this plot line seems designed to invite the audience to compare Owen and Washington’s lived experiences (surviving a famine versus surviving slavery), the book credited to playwright Christina Anderson (with Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan) questions and counters that impulse. “You ain’t my mirror and I ain’t yours,” Washington says.

Through Bill T. Jones’s inspired choreography, we also see how the Irish immigrant and Black experiences do and do not match up through movement. The percussive Juba dancing, full of stomping and slapping of the body, of the Black characters is contrasted with the hammering lower-body movements of the step dancing of the Irish characters. (We even get a hint of two styles of dance melting together to form modern tap.)

Unfortunately, for a story set during the Civil War, Paradise Square sometimes seems at war with itself. The captivating choreography is rarely well-integrated into director Moises Kaufman’s stand-and-sing staging – which also makes it devilishly difficult to connect emotionally to the characters.

The large ensemble, likewise, feels too big on a stage dominated by a giant industrial-looking set piece meant to represent Nellie’s bar; it rotates often, and somewhat pointlessly, as it looks pretty much the same on both sides. (Allen Moyer is the designer.)

This becomes a metaphor for a plot that, though rich in historical detail, often seems to spin in circles as much as it advances. Some of the stretches of nonaction seem designed to consciously subvert tragic tropes and trauma porn, but others are dramatic dead zones.

And a few moments are just glitchy – like when Lewis comes on twice brandishing a wanted poster, or in a dance competition that should be climactic but becomes confusing. The musical feels like it still contains splinters of earlier versions and didn’t have enough time to tweeze them out.

Paradise Square, unusually, has as its source material a different musical called Hard Times, created by Kirwan, the Irish-born singer of a political rock band called Black 47.

That show premiered off-Broadway in 2012 and told a Five Points story around the songs of Stephen Foster, the popular American composer who wrote still well-known tunes such as Camptown Races, Oh! Susanna and Swanee River for the parlour – and for minstrel shows.

A minstrelsy jukebox musical wouldn’t really fly now in New York – heck, even Florida changed the lyrics to its Foster-penned state song over a decade ago. Instead, his music is now only referenced in a new score composed by Jason Howland that, alas, aside from a couple overly blatant attempts at blazing numbers (nevertheless delivered with vigour by Kalukango), lacks flavour or drive.

Foster, interestingly, does appear as a character in the show (a lively Jacob Fishel), with his, as he puts it, “improvement” of a Black work song he hears down at the dock eventually putting people in physical peril.

That’s a fascinating theme for a Drabinsky-produced show – given his lavish revival of Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat in 1993 famously faced protests from some in Toronto’s Black community whose concerns included the appropriation to be found in the great American songbook.

Paradise Square will avoid any criticism regarding voice as its team includes both Black and white lyricists and writers. At its best, that variety of contributors have made for a rich, dialectical depiction of a complex slice of history

But at others, Paradise Square feel a case of … well, not too many cooks exactly, but cooks taking over a dish partway through the recipe. It will be hard for Drabinsky’s project to stand out in a packed Broadway season featuring some strong and distinctive artistic voices.

Review: Joaquina Kalukango elevates an ambitious ‘Paradise Square’ +

by Diep Tran
April 3, 2022

About three quarters through the new Broadway musical “Paradise Square,” my lingering doubts about the show vanished. This clarifying moment happened during the show’s 11 o’clock number, “Let It Burn.” Nelly (played by Joaquina Kalukango) was facing a crowd of angry white people threatening to lynch her family and burn down her business. Instead of cowering, she belted the phrase “Let it burn,” a challenge and a command.

As Kalukango sang, her soulful voice gained both altitude and power, as if she were climbing up to the heavens with her bare hands. After hitting her final note, which seemed to come out of her chest in an explosive roar, the audience leapt to their feet in applause.

Yes, “Paradise Square” is a bloated, melodramatic musical that could cut 20 minutes off its 2-hour-and-40 minute run time. But as Kalukango sang, I felt that I was watching Broadway history in the making — in years to come, those of us who were in the room will gush, smugly, “I was there when Joaquina Kalukango tore the roof down at the Barrymore Theatre.” It’s a committed performance that elevated the musical and demanded the audience’s empathy, reminding us of the humanity of all the characters in the story.

Set in 1863, “Paradise Square” takes place in the former Five Points neighborhood in lower Manhattan, where Black Americans and Irish immigrants lived peacefully alongside each other. That is, until the Draft Riots that summer, wherein a white mob, angered about being called to fight in the Civil War and about freed slaves taking their jobs, destroyed the neighborhood and the Black businesses within it, killing 120 people.

Kalukango’s Nelly runs the Paradise Square saloon in Five Points with her Irish husband Willie (Matt Bogart), his sister Annie (Chilina Kennedy) and Annie’s husband Samuel (Nathaniel Stampley), who is Black. But this interracial family is put in jeopardy when Nelly agrees to illegally hide a runaway slave named Washington (Sidney DuPont). Plus there’s the simmering white resentment just outside her door.

“Paradise Square” isn’t an educational tale about Black oppression or comfort food about how to overcome racial division. Instead, this is a moving and complicated musical about how different groups of people live together; their differences can make for a beautiful tableau, but can also be weaponized by the ruling class to pit them against each other. You don’t have to think too hard to understand the class and race parallels between 1863 and 2022, and the musical smartly lets the audience fill in those blanks.

The musical’s score, an impressive mixture of Irish jigs, 19th century work songs and jazz, reinforces the musical’s themes of racial harmony and racial division, while driving the show’s energy forward. One group number, “Why Should I Die in Springtime,” in which the Irish characters lament having to fight in the Civil War, is immediately answered by “I’ll Be a Soldier,” in which the Black characters declare they would fight if America would let them. It’s a brilliant battle in musical form.

Bill T. Jones’s expansive choreography similarly takes on these themes. Jones combines Irish step dancing, tap dancing, modern break dancing and Haitian Yanvalou, yet creates distinctive dances for the Irish characters and the Black characters. The result is character-motivated choreography that is astounding in its density and gorgeous in appearance.

Still, there’s a lot of narrative bloat to “Paradise Square.” This may be in part due to the musical’s crowded creative team, with three book writers, Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, music by Jason Howland (with additional music by Kirwan, inspired by Stephen Foster) and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. The strength of such a large creative team, led by director Moisés Kaufman, is its diversity, which is reflected in the musical’s score. But too many voices can dilute the focus of the show.

There’s a betrayal in the second act that the show hinges on, but it comes from a white character who is so minor that he doesn’t appear again after his narrative function is fulfilled. The show also fails to give the former slaves Washington and Angelina (an underused Gabrielle McClinton) actual character development; despite the stirring ballads that they sing together, they basically function as plot devices used to disrupt the racial Eden that Nelly had built. For a show about race, it’s a glaring oversight.

There have been many headlines about the financial trouble at “Paradise Square” and about its producer, Garth Drabinsky, who is a convicted felon. Despite this, “Paradise Square” is the kind of new musical that Broadway needs more of: an original story that is ambitious, moving and entertaining, with a diverse cast singing in formidable harmony.

‘Paradise Square’—what Bway’s best musicals are made of! +

by Linda Armstrong
April 7, 2022

“Paradise Square” is what Broadway’s best musicals are made of—it’s a theatrical masterpiece! The new musical playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on West 47th Street, shares a piece of our history from 1863, New York during the Civil War. In a story that takes you full circle, the audience is introduced to the Five Points area of lower Manhattan, the first slum, where Irish immigrants and formerly enslaved Black Americans not only lived together, but loved each other, as shared by lead character and narrator Nelly O’Brien. At the time, freed Blacks were struggling as much as the Irish immigrants who came to this country for a better life in America. Paradise Square was the local saloon and hang-out, where people came to socialize, sing, dance and relax.

“Paradise Square” is the story of this community of freed Black and Irish immigrants who lived in relative harmony until President Abraham Lincoln called for the first draft and drafted Irish immigrants only to fight in the Civil War. Once the draft was imposed this led to the Irish—who were already locked out of jobs because Blacks worked for cheaper wages—feeling outraged and taken advantage of, leading to the Draft Riots of 1863. There is something very captivating about watching a story unfold that is part of history; to add splendid, moving songs and dancing to it is just a win-win situation. The cast and creative team take their time walking the audience through the feelings and raw emotions felt by people on both sides and that makes this a human story not to be missed.

There are multiple show-stopping numbers from the opening song “Paradise Square” to “Heaven Save Our Home” to “Let It Burn.” Throughout this musical the exceptional cast sent chills running through the audience with the power of their vocal delivery, the electric, heart-pounding dancing and the variety of emotions they shared. This cast is splendid on all levels!

Joaquina Kalukango is brilliant as Nelly O’Brien, the owner of Paradise Square saloon and the wife of Willie O’Brien, an Irish army captain with the fighting 69th, the first all-Irish Army regimen. Kalukango has a glorious, tender and touching voice and completely takes the audience along on the highs, lows and betrayals that occurred during this time in history. Chilina Kennedy is fantastic as Annie Lewis, Nelly’s sister-in-law and wife of Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis, stunningly played by African American Nathaniel Stampley. Sidney DuPont is stirring as Washington Henry, a runaway slave being transported through the Underground Railroad. He sings with such power and his dancing is superb! A.J. Shively makes his mark as Owen Duignan, the nephew of Annie and an immigrant coming to find the American Dream. Shively has a wonderful singing voice and can dance with such style and flair. Kevin Dennis is tremendous as “Lucky” Mike Quinlan, an Irish immigrant tired of the mistreatment his people are receiving. Matt Bogart is incredible as Willie O’Brien, the husband of Nelly. Their passion is so engaging. John Dossett is splendid as the corrupt politician Frederic Tiggens, who wants to destroy Nelly and the following she has by the Irish immigrants. Jacob Fishel is marvelous as Milton Moore. Gabrielle McClinton is remarkable as Angelina Baker, the escaped slave and girlfriend of Washington Henry.

So many aspects of this new musical that just scream SUCCESS! Firstly, it takes us back to a time when people in the Five Points slums looked at each other as just people. There was a mixing of the races, like freed Blacks with Irish. Secondly, look at how art imitates life. When you look at the creative team of this musical, there is also an extraordinary mix of African American and white originality and creativity. The painstakingly detailed book is by African American Christina Anderson, with Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. Kirwan is also responsible for conceiving the musical and additional music. African Americans Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare created the lyrics and Jason Howland created the music along with doing music supervision, music direction and orchestration. Choreography legend Bill T. Jones birthed tremendous dance numbers with two Black associate choreographers––Gelan Lambert and Chloe Davis, and Irish & Hammerstep choreography is by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus. Costume design is by the one-and-only, African American Toni-Leslie James. Cohesive, monumental direction is the work of Moises Kaufman.

I have seen many musicals over the decades that I have been covering theater and everyone knows that when a show-stopping number is being performed you let the performer finish, but I tell you this, when Kalukango is singing “Let It Burn,” especially near the end of the song, I dare you to try and stay seated and quiet. You will be like me and so many others who jumped to our feet, applauded and started screaming. She sang that song with such power, determination and conviction and she held notes longer than you would think humanly possible.

Stairway to Heaven: A Review of Paradise Square on Broadway +

by Dennis Polkow
April 6, 2022

The grand journey of the musical “Paradise Square” reached its culminating destination of a full-scale Broadway opening Sunday night. Even New York City Mayor Eric Adams was there at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, offering heartfelt pre-curtain remarks about the relevance of this yesteryear tale of Black and Irish Americans living together peacefully as a template for our own time. “It’s time for us, just as they did, to push through the conflicts.”

Beginning life as an intimate Off-Off Broadway show conceived by Irish American author and musician Larry Kirwan, originally called “Hard Times” a decade ago, its metamorphosis into an epic extravaganza occurred across two coasts with a transformative stopover in Chicago last fall. (Newcity profile of producer Garth Drabinsky here; Newcity review of the Broadway in Chicago production here.)

The setting of 1863 on the eve of the Draft Riots in the nineteenth-century Lower Manhattan neighborhood known as Five Points has remained a constant. The music began as Kirwan’s reimagining of Stephen Foster songs but has evolved into an American grand opera with a compelling new score by Jason Howland that nonetheless remains rooted in the melodic world of the controversial figure known as the Father of American Music.

Dramaturgically, Foster hasn’t fared as well in the show as he has musically. The real Foster did come to New York in 1860 where he died four years later from injuries from a fall at the age of thirty-seven. In “Paradise Square,” Foster (Jacob Fishel) is shown as hiding his identity to play the piano at the fictional tavern of that name and ends up stealing songs from the Black residents there. Given that Foster did appropriate Black music of his day and profit from it as America’s first commercially successful songwriter, fair enough. What “Paradise Square” leaves ambiguous is what then are we to make of Stephen Foster? Like so much of the history of America, he remains both a curse and a blessing. In the Chicago production, he came across as more of a curse. For Broadway, some redeeming moments for Foster have been restored. As Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango), the owner of Paradise Square would say, “let the bar decide.”

The other component that really gives momentum to the narrative of “Paradise Square” is the presence of bi-cultural dance. Choreographer Bill T. Jones’ distinctive style radiates throughout. In Chicago, the switch from dialogue to dance was more abrupt, the dance on Broadway now much more integral to the action. Particularly moving is the addition of more dreamlike, almost ballet-like sequences used to illuminate backstories, such as the incident that forced the hand of Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont) to take the life of his master. The contrast and juxtaposition of Irish step dancing to contemporary Black dance, both then and now, remains a central plot point and the cast has become so free and expressive that the movement is more organic.

For those who saw the show in Chicago, the music tempos are much brisker right from the start of the show. In Chicago, the opening number title song where Nelly welcomes us to the neighborhood then and now was darker and more somber. No more. This is as energetic an opening as imaginable, propulsive and inspiring.

In fact, based on Chicago audience reaction, Howland has composed new songs that succeed in making the piece more dramatically integrated. The Act I finale has been restructured with a new song and purpose. In Chicago, Nelly had a poignant, introspective song of mourning “Welcome Home,” imagining her recently departed husband at the door. It was an amazing moment and Kalukango had us crying as we went to intermission. Using the same melodic hook, “Welcome Home” is now “Heaven, Save Our Home,” and is no longer a ballad but a power anthem that sums up all that is at stake for not only Nelly, but all that Paradise Square represents with the attempt to divide and conquer the Black-Irish coalition of the neighborhood.

Even songs that were there, such as “I’d Be a Soldier,” originally a more introspective song focused on a single character, is now a show-stopping Union anthem for the cause.

The climax of “Paradise Square” is the heart of the show and thankfully, everything that works about it was left alone. In Chicago, we got what Nelly was saying: if you, my beloved neighbors whom I have fed and supported think your riots and torches scare me after all that we’ve been through, “Let It Burn.” But borrowing a page from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” names are now named. It is very personal. And very powerful. And what Kalukango does with this eleven o’clock number vocally was always stunningly spectacular. But she has now found the dramatic heart of this moment as well. Her tears are real. And so are ours.

The Knockturnal Broadway Review: ‘Paradise Square’ Is Compelling, Heartfelt, Astonishing, and Everything Broadway Needs Right Now +

by Sydney Hargrove
April 5, 2022

As the curtain rose at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre last night, I wasn’t quite sure what I was about to witness. Broadway’s newest musical Paradise Square tells the exuberant story of the supposed birth of dancing, taking place at a bar in the Five Points of lower Manhattan in 1863. The titular bar, Paradise Square, is run by Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango), and it is quickly revealed that her husband is Irish soon-to-be-soldier, Willy O’Brien (Matt Bogart). We meet Nelly’s family in a lively opening number where she tells the story of the Five Points and how they all ended up there. Running the bar with Nelly, we meet her sister-in-law, the exuberant Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), and her husband, the gentle hearted Reverend, Samuel Jacob (Nathaniel Stampley). Though Nelly describes the area around the bar as a slum with crumbling streets and danger outside the door, the inside of the bar is anything but, and audiences are drawn in from the moment we are introduced to the story.

Though they don’t know it quite yet, the Paradise Square family will only grow as the opening act goes on. It’s impossible to keep your eyes off of AJ Shively’s Owen Duignan and Sidney DuPont’s Washington Henry. When the curtain rises, Duignan is a young man who has just walked off the boat from Ireland and into the arms of Annie, his loving aunt. Henry is a runaway slave who has just arrived in the Five Points after being promised shelter from Reverend Samuel. Upon arrival, the two men learn that they have been promised the same room, which prompts the two to compete for the space by dancing. Though that concept seems a bit tired and out of place for a show like this, Shively and DuPont make up for it immediately with an effervescent display of tap dancing. Shively displays a character going through so many rapid emotional changes, and takes on the story of Owen so beautifully, and DuPont delivers a stunning emotional portrait of a man who has been separated from the love of his life and will do anything to reunite with her.

What truly makes this show isn’t the vivacious dancing, the beautifully crafted set, or the exquisite costume choices — it’s simply the cast itself. A performance like this would not hit home the way that it did if it weren’t for a cast who had the ability to exude such a strong sense of family with each other, while also conveying the depth of fear, hurt, pride, heartache and triumph that these incredibly layered characters house. The emotion of this show rapidly changes, sending the audience on a journey of so many different feelings, with the cast bringing this journey about.

I could not possibly say enough good things about Joaquina Kalukango. From the moment she walked onto the stage, she delivered an astonishing performance that carried the versatility of a woman going through so many emotions as the world she once knew so well rapidly changes in front of her eyes, taking many turns for the worst as she tries to stay afloat. And stay afloat Nelly does, albeit occasionally breaking down, and Kalukango nails every side of Nelly. Her chemistry with Bogart is unmatched, with the two of them absolutely shining in their performance of Since The Day That I Met You, which tells the emotional story of their meeting through a letter that Willie had written to her from war. Multiple songs that Nelly is in repeat the notion that there is “so much to loose in this cruel world,” an emotional sentiment to everything that was loved and lost in her life.

While the first act is generally quite lively, save for a fair share of heartache on Nelly and her family’s behalf, the show quickly and unexpectedly transitions to a darker light in the second act. This creates for a vivid contrast amidst the show itself, as things like musical numbers become a bit more scattered and a wide variety of genres come into play. Some might say this lack of organization is the show’s tragic flaw, but I believe that it’s a brilliant part of what makes this show so compelling. The concepts of the show are polarizing, which is one of the best things about it; it proves it to be three-dimensional, showing that there are so many different ways to look at it.

Had it not been for Kalukango’s performance of the song Let It Burn, I would say that it would be difficult to pinpoint a favorite scene from the show. However, this song, sung entirely by Nelly with the rest of the cast standing behind her in closeness and solidarity to protect each other and everything that they love, is nothing short of perfection. On her final note, the whole house was on their feet to give Kalukango a standing ovation. I felt that it was a strange creative choice to have Let it Burn be the second to last song, as the final number Finale: Paradise Square, proved to be disappointing. Nearly every song that the show held up until the finale was either vivacious, powerful, emotional, or all of the above, but the final number fell rather flat, and I feel that if the show had ended on its penultimate number, it would have been a better flow. Nevertheless, the performances of the cast made up for it.

Paradise Square is a Holiday Treat for the Family +

by Rick and Brenda McCain
November 18, 2021

The play centers around a bar owner by the name of Nelly O’Brien in the Five Points neighborhood. Originating in 1881, when streetcar signs couldn’t fit the street names, the Five Points of Welton Street, Washington Street, Twenty-Seventh Street, and East Twenty-Sixth Avenue is where we witness a night of disturbing events. First, immigrants and Blacks living in peace and intermarrying find themselves at odds over why some were forced into war while others were free from being drafted. Then, when President Lincoln instituted the first Federal Draft to support the Union Army, the racial harmony ended between the Irish and Blacks, who received slightly better treatment with jobs. But, being poverty-stricken, the lack of employment and seeing whites avoid military service decimates the will of Italian-Americans; they formed a street gang called the Five Points Gang and tensions grew. 

Nelly, who married an Irishman that goes off to war, has had continual struggles with keeping her local saloon called Paradise Square, receives a tax bill she can’t afford. But the crew of impoverished bar workers comes up with a plan to save the pub with a dance-off. The winner gets $300, enough to pay their way off the draft list. Willie, an Irishman who just came from the boat, learns about the prize money and how it can help him avoid the draft, he competes, but Washington Henry needs money to escape his past. So there is a dance-off to win the prize, and the hooligans in the saloon will make the final decision.   

With the music and dancing flourishing on stage, you could feel the energy led by Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango, who played the lead role of Nelly O’Brien. Kalukango’s operatic voice brought the crowd to its feet as she sang, “Let It Burn.” Her presence on stage was electrifying, but it doesn’t overpower the many talented performers in this play. And there are too many to name. 

We will mention the talented Nathaniel Stampley, whom we had the pleasure and enjoyed interviewing on our radio show, Let’s Stay Together Talk. Stampley plays a Black minister named Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis, married to Annie, an Irish-Catholic woman. Stampley’s range and powerful voice that will take you back to the days of activist Paul Robeson made me rethink trying out for theater as an opera singer. Hedy Weiss would be happy to hear me say that. 

 

Chilina Kennedy is another force on the stage as Annie Lewis; a strong Irish woman no man would dare to challenge but desirable to the eye has a voice powerful enough to get her message across loud and clear. That includes singing.

Matt Bogart (Willie O’Brien) and Sidney DuPont(Washington Henry) commanding dancing and acting performances will capture audiences with their stories of being lost and in love, hoping to find a new life far from their past. We loved the combination of the African dance and ballet mixed with the Irish jig and Ceili that had a bit of street dancing. But it’s the beautiful way this play merges the singing, dancing, and acting that will chill your soul.

Larry Kirwan’s grandfather told him the story of Five Points. The playwright Craig Lucus and Marcus Gardley do an excellent rewrite of the story from the book, including songs from Stephen Foster. Foster, known as “the Father of American Music,” lived in the Five Points area. He was a songwriter who was down on his luck, seeking to recapture his love of music and rediscovered it playing at Paradise Square. 

Although we recommend audience see Paradise Square, there were some things The Nederlander Theater needs to address:The large, open auditorium kills the acoustics, and this play has such a vibrant sound and singing; its bad acoustics steals a little life from each play. Known originally as The Oriental Theater, this 1926 edifice, designed as a deluxe movie palace and vaudeville venue, needs a little sound boost. Although most people may not complain or notice the difference, we would love to have heard four-chord harmonic sequence singing.

With winter approaching, The Nederlander will need to develop a better plan to bring audiences into the theater.

The long lines we experienced yesterday will surely bring out the holiday Grinch if people have to stand out in the cold during the winter.  

Overall, Let’s Play Highly Recommends Paradise Square. It’s a holiday gift the family will surely enjoy. 

Stage And Cinema Theater Review: PARADISE SQUARE (Pre-Broadway Engagement in Chicago) +

by Dan Zeff
November 18, 2021

PARADISE, INDEED

The eyes of the theater world, both in Chicago and New York City, are likely now focused on the James M. Nederlander Theatre where Paradise Square is performing before its transfer to Broadway to begin previews on February 22, 2022. There are high hopes that this will be an early new Broadway musical hit of the post pandemic era; this run is its final out-of-town tune-up before moving to the Great White Way.

The musical has been in gestation for more than a decade in one venue or another. There are 26 names listed in the playbill as producers and nine more in the artistic credits. The cast numbers 38 with 14 musicians in the pit orchestra. This is one very persistent and ambitious project!

”Paradise Square” is the name of a saloon in a 19th-century New York City neighborhood known as the Five Points, a vibrant melting pot populated by newly arrived Irish immigrants and Blacks with ancestors dating back to colonial days. The two cultures generally got along existing on the bottom rung of American society, intermarrying and raising families. They performed scintillating dance cutting contests in the area’s dance halls and saloons that gave birth to the Black Juba style and Irish step dancing (ah, there, Riverdance).

The specific events in the musical take place in 1863. The narrative climaxes in a riot in which the Irish protested against being drafted into the army unless they could pay $300 or provide substitutes, both impossibilities among the impoverished immigrants (the Blacks weren’t eligible for the draft, not having citizen status). So Paradise Square is a slice of Americana, exuberant in its cultural mix yet violent, with 119 people officially listed as killed in the riot, though as many as 10 times that number may have died.

Paradise Square thrives as a terrific song-and-dance show rooted in American history. Every performer is loaded with talent as singers or dancers and often both. The musical score by Jason Howland, with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare, is a splendid combination of Irish and Black themes buttressed by numbers in the Broadway tradition. Howland has integrated the music of Stephen Foster, notably “Camptown Races” and “Oh Susanna,” into leitmotivs that blend seamlessly with Irish folk melodies. The book has passed through the hands of many writers, with final credits, to date, going to Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan.

Lovers of dance will particularly revel in the choreography of the eminent Bill T. Jones, who shapes the dance contests of the day into spectacular high stepping and hard swinging production numbers. The massed performers fill the stage with variations on “Oh Susanna” that are among the most exhilarating dancing set pieces I have ever seen.

The featured star of the show is Joaquina Kalukango, who plays Nelly O’Brien, owner of the Paradise Square saloon. Near the end of the show, she sings a single sustained note of passion and defiance that went on and on, stimulating a frenzied audience reaction that literally stopped the opening night performance for minutes.

Every credited player contributes to the exceptional performance level, but for me the first among equals is Sidney DuPont, who plays Washington Henry, a young Black activist. DuPont is featured in a half dozen numbers, serving up soaring and emotional solos whether the mood is upbeat or impassioned. Other heroes of the show include Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, A. J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Kevin Dennis, Jacob Fishel (a fictional Stephen Foster), and Matt Bogart. Let them represent the entire uber-talented ensemble.

The action is carried out on a multi-level moveable set designed by Allen Moyer that visually captures the poverty stricken ambience of the Five Points. Toni-Leslie James is responsible for the multitude of historically credible costumes. Donald Holder designed the lighting, Jon Weston the sound plan, and Wendell K. Harrington the evocative projection designs. Moises Kaufman’s direction pulls the show’s complex elements together into a coherent whole. Kaufman’s handling of so much superb singing, dancing, and narrative is beyond impressive.

So, will the multi-million-dollar Paradise Square make it big on Broadway? Its level of professionalism is unarguable, but the running time probably needs attention. The 90-minute first act was a long sit, and the narrative can probably be thinned out in the interest of a tighter audience experience. Yet I didn’t see or hear any obvious dead weight that could be carved away. The score doesn’t provide any catchy tunes (the Stephen Foster numbers aside) so customers won’t be humming any songs leaving the theater. But the score remains powerful and melodic. The ticket prices, at least in Chicago, are comparably inexpensive. Indeed, considering the abundance of talent on stage, the cost of admission is a bargain. I wish Paradise Square well in New York City. The show’s exceptional commitment to the highest aspirations of the American musical should not go unrewarded.

Chicago Theatre Review A Show That Makes You Think and Feel | Paradise Square – Broadway in Chicago +

by Colin Douglas

Chicago has long been the perfect city to try out Broadway bound productions, and this new, historical musical is the latest to test the waters. “Paradise Square” is named for an actual 19th century saloon in Five Points, the former slum area of New York City, where this sweeping musical is set. The is a big show, filled with a large cast of extraordinarily talented triple-threats. It boasts some of the finest acting, phenomenal singing and most unbelievable dancers of in any show in recent memory. It’s a massive musical that’s ripe for its Broadway debut. The musical just needs a few tweaks and minor adjustments to tighten up the story and make it perfect.

Set during the early years of the Civil War, Five Points was once a culturally diverse neighborhood of Irish immigrants and freed African Americans. It was an area was known for its racial harmony amidst all the filth and poverty. Bold and brassy Nelly O’Brien is the black owner of the one place where everyone can escape their troubles amidst the drinks, music, and dancing at the Paradise Square Saloon. She’s lovingly married to Willy O’Brien, an Irish immigrant and officer in the War. Nelly manages the bar together with Annie Lewis, her pregnant Irish sister-in-law, who’s married to black Presbyterian minister Samuel Jacob Lewis.

As the musical opens with the raucous and jubilant title song, Annie welcomes her nephew Owen Duignan to America, who’s hired to entertain saloon patrons with his dancing. Around the same time, Reverend Lewis brings a runaway slave to Paradise Square, who he christens Washington Henry. Lewis encourages Nelly to house the young man and hire him as another entertainer. Then Nelly is charmed by an affable, eager young pianist named Milton Moore. He’s also looking for work in the Five Points saloon, and so Nelly hires him, as well. And then the plot thickens.

The story turns darker in Act II. We discover that the Paradise Square pianist is actually famed composer Stephen Foster, whose music plays an important part in the score of this musical. The Civil War continues to rage on, bringing with it death, destruction and heartache. There’s an arrest warrant and a bounty out on young Washington Henry, who’s trying to locate his wife and escape to freedom. Then, the conscription of all Irish, Italian and German immigrants to become Union soldiers threatens young Owen Duignan. Unless he’s able to buy his way out of the military, with an exorbitant amount of cash, he will find himself another casualty of the War. The result is the infamous Draft Riots, in which many of the innocent people of Five Points were needlessly murdered and much of the area, including the Paradise Square Saloon, was burned to the ground.

“Paradise Square” is a magnificent show. It’s stuffed with a great deal of historical information, as well as some soul-searching examinations of racial, class and gender equality. Immigration issues feature heavily in the musical’s storyline, along with how America has sadly neglected its sick, downtrodden and the veterans of war.

But on the positive side, this show is most often a triumphant celebration of life. It’s chocked full of memorable characters, great music and extraordinary dancing. And it’s directed the inimitable Moises Kaufman, so it has to be great. The book may suffer from too many ideas and plot lines, courtesy of its four authors (Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas & Larry Kirwan), but that’s an easy fix. A song or two could easily be cut from the delightfully rollicking score, written by Jason Howland, with stirring lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. But the brilliant choreographer, Bill T. Jones, a two-time Tony Award-winner for Broadway’s “Spring Awakening” and “Fela,” has outdone himself. Dancing is the electric thread that pulsates throughout this production and drives it home. Jones’ gravity-defying choreography is a combination of furiously executed Irish step dancing and jigs, athletic African Juba and rhythmical  tap, which is said to have originated at this time in Five Points.

 This show soars with songs like “Paradise Square,” “I’m Coming,” “Why Should I Die In Springtime,” “Welcome Home,” “Ring, Ring the Banjo” and “Breathe Easy.” But “Let It Burn,” sung by Nelly O’Brien, is easily the best and most moving number in the score. A Tony nominee for “Slave Play,” the incomparable Joaquina Kalukango filled the Nederlander Theatre with her opulent vocal performance and prompted a spontaneous standing ovation that stopped the show. For those familiar with the musical “Dreamgirls,” Ms Kalukango’s performance is as honest and heartrending as Effie’s Act I finale, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

The cast is a truly gifted and accomplished ensemble of multi-talented individuals. They must all be commended for their hard work and thorough dedication to this piece, which had its world premiere at Berkeley Rep. In addition to the magnificent Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly, the cast is filled with a multitude of superb performances. Chilina Kennedy is heartbreaking and humorous as Annie Lewis; Nathaniel Stampley, a Jeff Award-winner for “Man of La Mancha” at the Marriott Theatre, is terrific as Reverend Lewis; Sidney DuPont is alternately joyous and soulful as Washington Henry; the marvelous A.J. Shively, remembered for his performance in Broadway’s “Bright Star,” is a force of nature as Owen Duignan. Last seen at the Goodman in “War Paint,” John Dossett is appropriately smarmy as Frederic Tiggens. Handsome, likeable Jacob Fishel is wonderfully earnest as Milton Moore. Matt Bogart, a Broadway veteran of so many terrific musicals, is excellent as Willie O’Brien. Kevin Dennis plays tortured military veteran “Lucky” Mike Quinlan with passion. And lovely Gabrielle McClinton is simply breathtaking as Angelina Baker.

This is a musical for audiences who enjoy great music and majestic choreography, but who also prefer a show that makes them think and feel. With a bit of trimming this extraordinary piece could easily stand beside such moving musical classics as “Les Miserables” and “Spring Awakening,” and historical pieces, such as “Hamilton” and “Ragtime.” This is a wonderful piece of theatre that’s well worth seeing in its pre-Broadway debut.

            

Highly Recommended

Splash Magazine Broadway in Chicago’s Nederlander Theater Premieres “Paradise Square” a Rousing Raucous Musical +

by Susan Lillis
November 18, 2021

I am thrilled and grateful that Chicago gets to experience this new Broadway Bound Musical before New York. Especially, considering its origins emanate from the little-known Five Points 1863 murderous draft riots in New York City where 119 people were killed. Five Points in lower Manhattan was the same poverty-stricken tenements Martin Scorsese depicted in his film Gangs of New York. Free and Run-away slaves settled here and originally lived in accord with a strong sense of community and camaraderie with the recently arrived Irish immigrant refugees, who fled the potato famines for a better life in America. Both cultures intermarried, shared culture, and life together despite the extreme deprivation of this slum. The area was ripe with dance halls and bars, where African tribal dances along with the Irish Jig and Clogs came together to birth Tap Dance. Stephen Foster, the great American composer spent time here absorbing the minstrel songs he made so popular across the United States. Paradise Square is a fictionalized portrayal of one of these saloon dance halls. This is the powerful history most of us do not know, should know, and can learn from. Unfortunately, a government conscription policy drafting the Irish immigrants to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War caused an unintended consequence, as many top-down policies tend to do. Blacks were not considered citizens and were exempt from the draft as were those who could afford to pay $300.00 to the government or provide a substitute to avoid serving in the war. The Irish were afraid they would lose their livelihoods on the docks and slaughterhouses if forced into serving in the Civil War and they would be replaced by the former slaves, so they protested.

On Monday, July 13, 1863, the protestors initially targeted military and governmental institutions as an objection to the Civil War and the unfairness of the draft. By the afternoon the tide turned and their black friends, family, and neighbors were under attack by protestors turned rioters for three days. Mobs attacked the Colored Orphan Asylum housing 233 children. The children were led out to safety, but the orphanage was looted, ransacked, and then burned to the ground. A police officer leading the children out was killed by the angry rioters. Order was not restored until the military stepped in.

This is the historical backdrop for Paradise Square when harmony and understanding come undone on their little piece of Eden with the following stellar cast: Nelly O’Brien,(Joaquina Kalukango) the stalwart Black Paradise Square Saloon owner whose Irish husband Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart) serves faithfully as a Union soldier. Nelly’s bawdy, taunting Irish Catholic sister-in-law is Annie Lewis, (Chilina Kennedy) and her Black minister husband, Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley) a caretaker to the community. Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively), is a conflicted newly arrived Irish immigrant. While Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), plays a fearless freedom seeker. Frederic Tiggens John Dossett), is an anti-abolitionist, uptown, evil political boss determined to shut Nelly’s saloon down. Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), a drunk, penniless songwriter with a surprising secret, is trying to capture it all.

The original musical was conceived by Mr. Kirwan called Hard Times and performed in 2019 at the Berkeley Repertory Theater under the direction of Tony Taccone and Susan Medak. Paradise Square has evolved from Hard Times into a profound powerful grand production. The talent in this musical is truly amazing. The songs, dance, and acting are superb. The choreography ranges from intensive, energetic, percussive step dancing to creative lyrical emotive storytelling through movement. The strength and poignancy of Joaquina Kalukango’s voice will cause your spirit to soar. From the thunderous applause, and loud laughter it was evident the audience loved the opening night of Paradise Square. This is a definite must-see musical before it heads to New York.

Garth Drabinsky, a Canadian theatrical and film producer, brings this dramatic heart and soul history to the Nederlander Theater in Chicago which he was responsible for refurbishing when it was the Oriental. Some of his noted productions are among my favorites of all time: Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Aspects of Love, and Fosse. His company Livent (Live Entertainment Company of Canada, Inc.) earned 19 Tony Awards out of 61 nominations. I am hoping Paradise Square wins Tony number 20.

To paraphrase Nelly O’Brien: Broadway in Chicago doors are open. Come on in. Loop theaters run by Broadway in Chicago will require COVID-19 precautions including proof of vaccination or negative tests, and masks for audience members, at least through the end of 2021 for further information contact Paradise Square until December 5.

Dean's Theater Reviews: Paradise Square +

by Dean Richards
November 28, 2021

“Before the pandemic, it wasn't uncommon for shows to come to Chicago before they opened in New York. Now, for the first time in almost two years, the pre-Broadway tryout has returned. This time it's the Civil War musical Paradise Square. But instead of it being set on the battlefields of the South, the battle here is set in New York City in one neighborhood called Five Points, where free born Black people who escaped slavery live peacefully with the Irish immigrants who have come to America to escape the Great Famine.

It’s a story of racial harmony that begins to unravel, turning to hate between the races with the tragedy of war and growing unemployment for all centered around a saloon and a safe haven for many called Paradise Square.

It's an incredible story that often becomes poignant for its many comparisons to the same social problems that we face today, but it’s also very touching and full of hope and life, both through its strong performances and razor-sharp dance numbers from both sides of the ethnic and racial aisle.

A highlight of the show is actress Joaquina Kalukango, recently nominated for a Tony Award for Slave Play, whose passion but mostly her stunning voice will send shivers down your spine. Paradise Square is in Chicago for only another week before it heads to New York. I'm recommending this powerful show at the Nederlander Theatre, only until December 5th.”

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Cast, direction carry musical celebration of 1863 Manhattan's Five Points +

by Jeffrey Nelson
November 28, 2021

“Paradise Square” is a vibrant new musical getting its final form at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre as it heads to Broadway.

The name refers to a saloon in a neighborhood of the New York City borough of Manhattan known in the 19th century as Five Points.

“Paradise Square” is musical theater that is history, and the focus is the summer of 1863. That summer, the delicate harmony of this multi-ethnic neighborhood is threatened by the U.S. government’s first military draft.

Celebrating Five Points with a musical is quite fitting, as this generally poor part of lower Manhattan had a reputation for dance halls that featured wild and innovative dancing and multi-ethnic music. Historians have traced the origin of tap dancing to Five Points music halls and dance halls.

And yet, this area was regarded for years as one of the worst slums in New York City and a center of crime and cesspool of disease and drunkenness.

The songs of Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen, Masi Asare and Larry Kirwan celebrate the rich multi-ethnic culture of Five Points, and a little history enhances the music here as adaptations of Stephen Foster songs are used around the actual character of that songwriter, who appears as a pianist working at Paradise Square.

Note here: He did live in the nearby Bowery during this Civil War era, but there is no record of him working in such saloons as Paradise Square. The only record of Foster spending time in Five Points is an arraignment he had with a German grocer.

“Paradise Square” is anchored in the history of lower Manhattan (the area today is Chinatown and Columbus Park) and the Civil War.

The four credited book authors, Larry Kirwan, Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley and Craig Lucas, create a strong blending of dramatic personal stories with history.

There are some historical slips, and some of the narrative gets a bit cluttered in the first act. But the story that unfolds on stage is generally compelling, and the reason it survives the book’s modest flaws is the cast and direction.

The talent level of this cast would make any director jealous. If half of directing is casting, director Moisés Kaufman is an overachiever.

This cast is nothing less than superlative at every level, and Kaufman pulls every ounce of talent from this outstanding ensemble.

Joaquina Kalukango as the proprietress of Paradise Square is simply brilliant, whether she is belting one of the many powerful and tuneful songs she performs or simply performing her character.

Chilina Kennedy, A.J. Shivley, Sidney DuPont and Nathaniel Stampley add their own standout performances to this stellar ensemble.

Special mention here must go to choreographer Bill T. Jones. Perhaps the most viscerally exciting moments of “Paradise Square” are the dance numbers. They are somewhat derived from historic descriptions of the exciting dance hall evenings Five Points was renowned for.

But, Jones has added many modern touches of contemporary dance virtuosity and sheer athleticism. The result is a series of dance numbers that are not only moving parts of the text, but among the most memorable choreographed moments you are likely to see in professional theater.

“Paradise Square” will continue its run at the James T. Nederlander Theatre at 24 W. Randolph St. in Chicago’s Loop until Dec. 5. It will open on Broadway on March 20, 2022, at the Barrymore Theatre.

For further information, go to broadwayinchicago.com.

"Paradise Square" Touches the Soul +

by Bonnie DeShong
November 23, 2021

It’s 1863, Lincoln is President, and the Civil War is raging. Slavery is strong in the South and in the North, more Blacks are being born into freedom but are still at the bottom of the ladder along with the Irish Immigrants who left Ireland to escape the famine. The Irish and Blacks got along and lived together in the Community of Five Points. Naturally, some would fall in love with each other not worried about Race mixing but sharing the love of family.

One such couple is a freeborn Black woman named Nelly Freeman O’Brien and her Irish husband Willie O’Brian. Nelly owns the saloon in Five Points called Paradise Square, a place where all can come and drink, get a little pleasure and relaxation, and dance. Harmony only lasts so long before something or someone lights the spark of discontent. This comes when a draft is put into place where all the immigrant Irishmen must report to be drafted into the Union Army, however, “Coloreds” are not allowed to fight even though they are more than willing to go. The rich whites that live uptown fan this flame and it leads to the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863 as the Irishmen take their rage out on the Black residents with as many as 1200 dying and most of the community burned to the ground.

Sounds depressing? No, it is a look into history that isn’t too far from the actions of today.

I was in the opening night audience and found that there is so much more to this production than I realized. The cast is one of the most amazing I have seen in a long while. Going to as many plays as I do, sometimes it feels as if I am just watching the action on a stage. "Paradise Square"’s energy leaves the stage and surrounds the audience in such a way that you feel a part of the story and not an onlooker.

One of the reasons for that is Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango.

From the time she steps on the stage to the curtain call, you are in the palm of her hand. Her voice and interpretation of the songs and dialogue are the souls of the production. I think the co-star of the production is the Irish Step Dancing and the African Juba (a form of dance that led to tap dancing) choreographed by renowned Bill T. Jones. If you don’t know him Google him. You need to know who he is. The beauty of both forms of dance tells a story with each step and arm movement. The dance competition between the two groups have you moving in your seat and tapping your feet.

When Nelly sings “Let it Burn” tears sprang to my eyes and chills ran through my body. I and everyone in the audience jumped to our feet as if we were pulled by an invisible force. I have never felt anything like it.

I can’t close out this review until I mention Chilina Kennedy who plays Nelly’s sister-in-law Annie Lewis. Her spunkiness and fire are just the right touches to show the love and determination of these two women, one Black and one Irish, and both so much the same.

”Paradise Square” touched the soul of the audience. The energy and poetry of the dancing, the passion of the story, and the power of the songs and voices bought us to our feet in understanding.

The production is only at the Nederlander Theatre through December 5th. It is a production you do not want to miss.

Lush new musical ‘Paradise Square’ creates rich world drawn from many cultures +

Powerful music, meaningful dances contribute to the emotionally intricate storytelling, set in 1863 Manhattan.
by Catey Sullivan
November 18, 2021

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 Moisés 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.

‘Paradise Square’: 4 out of 4

When: Through Dec. 5
Where: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Street
Tickets: $60 – $116.50
Run time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Info: (800) 775-2000, www.BroadwayInChicago.com

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 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 to 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.

Evil politico Frederic 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 to 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 Banjo”) 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.

‘Paradise Square’ Does a Fierce and Timely Dance Into a Civil War Era Racial Uprising +

by Hedy Weiss
November 19, 2021

The time is the summer of 1863, midway through the Civil War. The place is the Five Points neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a slum-ridden neighborhood where impoverished Irish immigrants who fled the famine back home intermingle with freeborn Blacks, as well as slaves who have managed to escape from Southern plantations but are still being pursued. But amid that poverty and disenfranchisement there is a saloon, owned and operated by Nelly O’Brien, an indomitable Black woman married to a white man who is off fighting in the Union army.

Nelly’s saloon – something of an anomaly in many ways – is called Paradise Square. And it welcomes both the Irish and Blacks of the neighborhood, both of whom can dance up a storm, and in a few cases intermarry. But if there is a joyful spirit of competition and mutual support at work in the bar, it is, not surprisingly, short-lived. For while Black men are forbidden to serve in the Union Army, poor working-class white men are suddenly subjected to a draft. And issues triggered by the bitter competition for jobs is exploited by manipulative white political bosses who serve the wealthy “uptown” crowd and intensify the highly destructive racial tension that will upend one brief moment of coexistence.

And there you have the essential elements of “Paradise Square,” the grand-scale musical brought to life by a cast of megawatt talents. Conceived (and long in development) by Larry Kirwan, the show, which has now arrived at the Nederlander Theatre for a pre-Broadway Chicago tryout, in many ways feels like a prequel to “Ragtime,” another musical epic about race, class, and the fractured nature of the American dream. (And while it is the creation of an entirely different artistic team, it comes by way of the same producer, Garth Drabinsky).

Directed by Moisés Kaufman (with musical staging by Alex Sanchez), it is fueled by a fervent (and at moments semi-operatic) score, with music by Jason Howland and fiery lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. Its book, by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan, could use some tightening.

What really blows this show out of the park is its knockout dancing, and the brilliant choreography by Bill T. Jones that in many ways is more potent than any spoken dialogue as it sets the phenomenal rhythms and moves of both Irish step dancing and African juba into a brilliant competition that reveals the genius of both “languages.” While the dance speaks volumes at every turn in this show, the driving historical events that fuel its crucial drama (and that might not be widely known at all), take too long to emerge. In brief: Blacks were not permitted to serve in the Union Army until late in July of 1862 when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (which he had feared would alienate those in the “border states” and drive them to secede). Meanwhile, as the working-class white men who managed to return from the front sought jobs they resented the fact that many of those jobs were being given to Black men. And New York politicians, hungry for the votes of Irish (and other) immigrants, stirred up that resentment which was further fueled by the Draft Act of 1863 that allowed wealthier whites to buy their way out of military service. The fallout came in the form of massive riots that claimed many lives and caused immense destruction during what became known as the New York Draft Riots. (The show’s penultimate song, “Let It Burn” – though far from a constructive healing solution to this country’s enduring problems – nevertheless received a boisterous standing ovation at Wednesday’s opening night performance.)

But now to the characters in this story, and the galvanic performances that bring them to extraordinarily vivid life.

With a powerhouse voice and a personality to match, Joaquina Kalukango plays Nelly O’Brien, a woman who can give as good as she gets. On the one hand, she can provide shelter to the desperate, and on the other, she can fearlessly face off against the corrupt powers that be. Kalukango is a force to reckon with on every count.

And then there are the two pivotal young men in the story who dance up a fabulous competitive storm, and also are exceptional actors and singers. A.J. Shively plays Owen Duignan, the newly arrived Irish immigrant (and gives a transcendent performance of the heart-wrenching song “Why Should I Die in Springtime?”). Sidney DuPont plays Washington Henry, the runaway slave from Tennessee who brings a sense of deepest despair to “Angelina Baker,” the song about his profound fear that his beloved wife (played by Gabrielle McClinton) might never make it to New York. His dancing is phenomenal.

Nathaniel Stampley (an actor who has often worked in Chicago) brings his remarkable, understated aura of quiet authority, dignity and decency to the role of the Rev. Samuel Jacob Lewis, a Black man married to Nelly’s white business partner, Annie Lewis, and who also works as a foreman and must make some very difficult hiring decisions. Annie (played by the witty, golden-voiced Chilina Kennedy) is winningly captured in the couple’s ironically titled song, “Gentle Annie.” (Nelly and Annie memorably bond with the beautiful song “Someone to Love.”)

The show’s “real-life” character is Steven Foster (Jacob Fishel), the fabled American composer of minstrel songs who, in a down-on-his-luck period, assumes the name Milton Moore and convinces Nelly to hire him as her house pianist.

John Dossett brings just the right chilly, anti-abolitionist arrogance to the role of Frederic Tiggens, the New York political boss who stirs up the deadly racial chaos that brings an end to the short-lived racial Eden suggested by the Paradise Square saloon. And there are strong turns by Kevin Dennis and Matt Bogart – both Union Army victims.

Allen Moyer’s steely set and bar interior, with lighting by Donald Holder and costumes by Toni-Leslie James, set the mood.

But again, it is in many ways the dancing that most brilliantly and eloquently captures the connection and disconnection in this story.

By the end of “Paradise Square,” you might find yourself wondering if there will be a couple of musicals that provide epilogues to “Paradise Square” and “Ragtime.” In a strange way “Hair” might fill the space for the 1960s, but a story set in and around 2020 and 2021 is still to be created.

“Paradise Square” runs through Dec. 5 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. For tickets, visit broadwayinchicago.com. The show is slated to open on Broadway on March 20, with previews beginning Feb. 22.

Footwork tells the story best in Paradise Square +

A Broadway-bound musical set during the Civil War draft riots calls for community over conflict.
by Irene Hsiao
November 19, 2021

After its 2019 premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Paradise Square, a musical conceived by Larry Kirwan, inspired by the music of Stephen Foster, directed by Moisés Kaufman, and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, has roared into Chicago for a month-long run at the Nederlander Theatre before it heads to Broadway in 2022.

The year is 1863, the place Five Points (“the first slum in America”), a neighborhood in lower Manhattan where Black folks and Irish immigrants lived and worked. As the Civil War rages in the southern states, in Paradise Square, a saloon owned by fierce free-born Black woman Nelly Freeman (Joaquina Kalukango) and co-operated with her feisty Irish sister-in-law Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), life is loud and times are rough, yet humans are mostly peaceful in a place where Black and Irish mingle, dance, and intermarry. (Nelly’s husband is an Irish immigrant captain in the Union army, Annie’s husband a Black Protestant reverend—shorthand for the probability that all the sloshes swarming the saloon are somehow someone’s cousin.)

The trouble is the war, or rather, the pressures the leaders of any war place on those who do the fighting: the poor and underprivileged. Here, the Civil War combines issues that remain unresolved a century and a half later: citizenship, race, economic inequality, belonging, the pursuit of happiness, and who exactly has the right to engage in that pursuit. A draft announces that Irish immigrants—who aren’t yet citizens—must enlist. However, Black men who want to fight (and prove their citizenship, which they also don’t yet have) aren’t permitted to join. And anyone who has three hundred dollars—or a year’s pay for the working class—can buy their way out. Thanks to the unfortunate combination of slimy politicians and frustrated, underemployed working-class white men—embodied primarily in the figure of irate Irish immigrant veteran “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis), who has lost an arm in the war and now can’t find work—the working classes are made to squabble with each other instead of seeing the wealthy and powerful pulling the strings.

These unjust elements find their story in the characters of fresh-off-the-boat Irish lad Owen Duignan (A. J. Shively) and runaway slave Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont). Owen has come to stay with his aunts Annie and Nelly to escape the Great Famine and make his American fortune. Washington Henry has traveled the Underground Railroad to escape a plantation and create a life of freedom and self-sufficiency with his wife (who is conveniently separated from Washington for most of the journey to keep the foils clean—though there’s a sweet subplot with some singing Black lesbians on a utopian farm/waystation on the Underground).

Both have suffered, both are determined, and both are dependent on the safety of Paradise Square. And by the way, both can dance like there’s a fire on the floor—Owen with the sprightly, high-stepping patterns of the Irish, Washington Henry with the grounded stomp, slap, and roll of African American juba.

To make a long story short and to give us what we’ve been waiting for, the center of Paradise Square is a feis: a dance battle—where one winner will take home a bounty of three hundred dollars: the price of freedom for one man (women can compete, too). But who will it be? Will it be Owen, whose bonny spirit sours in the face of imminent death in a war he has not chosen? Or will it be Washington Henry, who has spent a life downtrodden and never had a breath of liberty yet? Will the angry white men shouting in the streets succeed in inciting a riot in advance of the invention of social media? And who is that drunkard at the piano appropriating songs and stories from the oppressed?

It would all be a bit pedantic if the performances weren’t so spectacular and the reenactments of historic tragedies so painfully contemporary. And yet the singing is blockbuster, the dancing is dazzling, and the reckoning that anyone sitting through this fable must undergo is as sobering as it ought to be. Kalukango is a forceful presence with a powerhouse voice as Nelly, and the rapport with Kennedy as Annie, who can blitz right from a belt to a head voice, is on point, all supported by an ensemble that sometimes splits into factions but ultimately coalesces into a community.

A note on the dancing: Five Points has sometimes been called the birthplace of tap dance, and Bill T. Jones is not exactly known for choreographing in that genre (Garrett Coleman, Jason Oremus, Gelan Lambert, and Chloe Davis are also named as choreographers). But Jones, who has won Tony Awards for "Fela!" and "Spring Awakening", is known for a company and works that illustrate the beautiful possibility of dwelling in harmonious difference—even in the name of the company he cofounded with his deceased (white) partner Arnie Zane. Though the premise of "Paradise Square" includes competition, the glory of it is in complement, in the delightful joy of seeing dancers and humans juxtaposed in conversation and collaboration.

The Harmony of Discord: A Review of Paradise Square at the James M. Nederlander Theatre +

by Brian Hieggelke
November 17, 2021

It’s far too early to know if this is one for the ages, but no doubt this is the most important musical of our times, drawing from American history to depict the kind of racial harmony we still call aspirational, as well as the path to its destruction.

It’s the story of Paradise Square, an anything-goes saloon in Five Points, New York—”America’s first slum”—set near the middle of the Civil War, at a time when free Blacks and Irish immigrants lived together in harmonious squalor. In fact, the owner of the bar, Nelly O’Brien (Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango), is a Black woman married to an Irishman whose sister, Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), is married to a Black minister, Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley). It’s a sort of interracial utopia from the future, until the war and the conscription that follows create heartache and conflict, eventually leading to the Draft Riots that, according to Wikipedia, “remain the largest civil and most racially charged urban disturbance in American history.”

When the draft comes, the Irish (and other) immigrants who can’t afford to hire a substitute or pay $300—a full year’s wages—won’t be able to avoid the battlefield to fight a war for a country they barely know. But Blacks, who are not considered citizens, are prohibited from service, as much as they might actually want to fight. This sets neighbors against each other, in a microcosm of the conflict of the Civil War itself. Never mind that the real villains were the rich who were able to buy their way out of service under the law.

If you’re a fan of the kind of big, dumb musicals that too often make bank on Broadway, this is not your show. It’s smart, nuanced and jammed with ideas about race, gender, class, immigration, the neglect of veterans, and just about everything else that ails America. “Pretty Woman” this is not.

What it is is a percussive dance wonderland, filled with extraordinary Irish jig, Juba and tap dancers—tap was created in Five Points. There is a kind of playful competition and collaboration throughout that calls to mind the high-school dance in “West Side Story,” if only the Jets and the Sharks were friend rather than foe.

Bill T. Jones’ choreography throughout is exceptional—his depiction of slaves being beaten on a plantation in one scene creates a tableau that is somehow terrifying and beautiful at the same time. He can start making room on his mantel for his third Tony Award right now.

The songs in the first act are far less memorable, except the Stephen A. Foster mashups, modernizations of such songs as “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races” that fuel masterful dances. But the performances from Kalukango, Kennedy and Stampley and their powerful voices turn so-so songs into soaring triumphs anyway. And the two lead dancers—Irish immigrant Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively) and escaped slave Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), could put on their own show, and do.

Foster’s music—and character—plays a big part in the show, anchoring songs like the poetic “Why Should I Die in Springtime” but also creating a framework for addressing the history of commercial appropriation of Black music for white financial gain and even minstrelsy. Foster moved to Five Points toward the end of his life and was inspired by it. Little wonder, since most great American music innovations originate in the most hardscrabble places, like jazz, blues and hip-hop.

But the show’s not of one mind when it comes to appropriation in artistic creation. In one key dance scene, Washington Henry wows everyone when he incorporates Irish jig into his own footwork. It’s a theatricalization of the creation of tap. That the show has more questions on this topic than answers is appropriate, since the culture at large is still very much grappling with it as well.

The final third of the show, which depicts the riots and their carnage, is its most expository and episodic and my least favorite, for the dancing recedes and so, generally, do the main characters. Overall, the show, while very strong already, can still use a few nips and tucks of songs and scenes to tighten the pacing and amplify the drama.

Still, small touches are nice, such as tableaus where the inactive ensemble members in a scene freeze in pose, as if prepping for a Mathew Brady photograph. And speaking of the ensemble, I can’t remember a musical where the collective voices constructed such a beautiful wall of sound; it brought to mind the Lyric Opera Chorus.

The music in the second act is much stronger, with “Someone to Love” and “Breathe Easy” making their case for singing-in-the-shower worthy. Two showstopping scenes are the feis dance competition, where the stake is, not coincidentally, $300, and “Let It Burn,” where Kalukango’s voice and all-consuming presence is stunning, of which the audience agreed such that it erupted in a standing ovation that literally stopped the show. Start engraving her Tony, too.

This show has been on a long road of development, as evidenced by the number of writers credited for the book—Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, the lead singer of Black 47 who planted the seed of this project nearly a decade ago with the predecessor musical, “Hard Times.” But thanks to its all-star cast and creative team, led by three-time Tony Award-winning producer Garth H. Drabinsky, two-time Tony Award-nominated director Moisés Kaufman and two-time Tony Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones, it’s off to Broadway this time, after its short Chicago run.

That long road has also, sadly, brought the cultural relevance of the show to the forefront. When one disgruntled character, a wounded Civil War veteran, sings about being “true to a country that wasn’t true to you,” it’s as if the seeds of the disaffection that plagues some of the white working class today are being planted. And when Gabrielle McClinton, playing Washington’s love and fellow escaped slave Angelina Baker, sings the gospel-infused “Breathe Easy,” a song about slavery promising “You will reach freedom someday,” you can’t help but think about the deaths of George Floyd and Eric Garner, two Black men literally suffocated by white oppression. The song will leave you breathless, as will the sadness.

At the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street through December 5.

Paradise comes to Chicago! | Behind The Curtain Podcast +

by Paul Lisnek

The long-awaited "Paradise Square" not only does not disappoint, but it gives Chicago the Return to Broadway feeling we have been awaiting for nearly two years. And what a visit to Paradise it is.

First, the Tony folks might as well engrave the Tony now for Best Choreography to Bill T. Jones and for Set Design to Allen Moyer because it’s hard to imagine any other new show matching what these theater geniuses have created. And while they are at it, just go ahead and get ready to give this year’s 2021 Best Actress in a Musical Award to (2020 Tony Nominee for Best Actress for "Slave Play") Joaquina Kalukango for a moving and powerful performance as Nelly O’Brien. Her performance of “Let it Burn” had the audience on their feet for an extended standing ovation that was beyond well-deserved and is guaranteed to become a moment in classic Broadway. You will be humming the opening/closing number “Paradise Square” as it is guaranteed to lock in your brain as an earwig; you and your guests will walk out talking about just how much we as a society still have to learn when it comes to race relations. As the play intimates, harmony among peoples may be a dream for the future…a thought the characters posit in 1863….a moment we continue to wait for in 2022 and beyond. Producer Garth Drabinsky ("Showboat", "Ragtime", "Kiss of the Spider Woman") has created yet another epic show that will live among the ranks of "Les Misérables", "Miss Saigon", "Hamilton" and other classics of the modern era.

You have until December 5th to see it before it heads to a set February opening on Broadway. You don’t want to miss the experience that Broadway audiences will be raving about for years to come. Chicago gets to experience it first…and after all we’ve been through, we deserve it.

‘Paradise Square’ reveals ‘little bit of Eden’ +

by Paul Lockwood
November 19, 2021

In 1863, the Civil War is still raging. New York City’s Five Points area is the part of Manhattan considered to be the first slum in America. Irish immigrants and escaped or free-born Black Americans are intermingling at a bar where many customers are fugitives, drunks and prostitutes. This is the setting for the new Broadway in Chicago production, “Paradise Square,” and if you’re looking for that next big Tony Award-winning musical before it hits Broadway, head to “Paradise.” It’s that good.

The opening number, which shares its name with the title of the show, quickly introduces us to the main characters:

The Black owner of the bar is Nelly O’Brien (past Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango), whose late father was a slave. According to the lyrics, Paradise Square is “a little bit of Eden” in that part of New York.

Nelly’s Irish husband is Willie (Matt Bogart), captain of the Fighting 69th infantry, who’s ready to head back to war but will definitely miss his wife. Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy) is Willie’s sister, who helps Nelly run Paradise Square, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.

The love of Annie’s life is her Black husband, the Rev. Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley), who we soon will find out is willing to assist slaves who’ve made their way to New York via the Underground Railroad.

Kalukango is clearly the star here – she can project to the last Nederlander Theatre balcony row when she’s singing, and there are few performers I’ve seen who can bring an audience to their feet before the end of the show. Kalukango did it with the Act II showstopper, “Let It Burn,” powerfully delivering an emotional message at a climactic moment in the story. Mark my words: Kalukango will get another Tony nomination in 2022 for this performance, and will be a prime contender for the actual award.

Other key characters who propel the plot include: Annie’s nephew, Owen (A.J. Shively), a new immigrant from Ireland whose dance ability ultimately may help him avoid fighting in the war; political boss Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), who fears that Nelly’s bar and its diverse patrons could oust him from power; Fighting 69th infantry unit member “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis), whose loyalties change when he returns from battle; escaped slave Joe (Sidney DuPont) – renamed Washington Henry by Samuel – who’s been separated from his girlfriend during the Underground Railroad journey, and who needs a place to stay until she arrives; and a new singer/songwriter/piano player at the bar, Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), who may have renamed himself.

Why should you hightail it to this “Paradise?” Let’s start with the music, which provides something for everyone – a sarcastic self-declaration by Annie when her husband thinks an Underground Railroad visit is too dangerous for her to accompany him (“Gentle Annie”) to a joyous dance competition at the bar (“Ring, Ring the Banjo”) to a character stoking the fires of rebellion (“One Match and One Man”) to the love of Nelly and Willie from the day they met (“Larry’s Goodbye”). A 14-person orchestra playing 31 different instruments, led by music supervisor/conductor Jason Howland, who composed the score with the help of lyricists Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare, provides all the accompaniment this talented cast deserves.

Speaking of that cast, two-time Tony nominee Moisés Kaufman, the director of “Paradise Square,” has brought out believable emotions/performances from every one of them. And the amazing dances you’ll see throughout the show should earn another Tony nomination for two-time Tony Award Winner Bill T. Jones. I haven’t seen such a variety of dance styles in a non-revue musical in an awfully long time.

In summary, the phrase “a rare and special lot” is used by Nelly to describe the people at Paradise Square. This musical for adults, with a backdrop of the life-changing war and Draft Riots, is both rare and special. So bring your vaccination card and wear your mask – Broadway in Chicago requires both to keep us all safe – and enjoy this slice of “Paradise.”

Paul Lockwood is an enthusiastic singer, frequent local theater actor (including Theatre 121′s Storybook Players repertory group), Grace Lutheran Church (Woodstock) and Toastmasters member, occasional theater reviewer, columnist, and past president of TownSquare Players.

IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Paradise Square”
WHERE: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago
WHEN: Tuesday through Sunday performances (except Thanksgiving) through Dec. 5
INFORMATION: 800-775-2000, ticketmaster.com

Dance, vocals stand out in 'Paradise Square' +

by Eloise Marie Valadez

Chicago's Nederlander Theatre opened its doors for the first time since the start of the pandemic with a new Broadway-bound musical last Wednesday.

"Paradise Square" is currently lighting up the Chicago Loop's theatrical scene with powerful vocal and dance performances. The show continues to Dec. 7. It's scheduled to begin previews Feb. 22 at The Barrymore Theatre on Broadway with an official opening on March 20.

"Paradise Square" is set in New York City in the late 1800s during the Civil War. During that time in the Five Points slum area of New York, immigrants from Ireland and free-born Black Americans lived in community with one another both celebrating their individual cultures and creating a unified family of neighbors. The musical celebrates this unique time in history.

It's there in Five Points where the Tap dance form was born and the musical highlights a blending of Tap with Irish Step Dancing as well as the dance form Juba featuring creative choreography by Bill T. Jones.

The story line of the show revolves around a free-born Black woman named Nelly O'Brien, portrayed by Joaquina Kalukango, who is married to Willie O'Brien, played by Matt Bogart, who is of Irish heritage. Nelly is the owner/operator of Paradise Square, the saloon which is the center of life, in a sense, for the residents of Five Points.

Audience members meet other characters such as Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), an Irish woman who is married to Samuel Jacob Lewis, a Black reverend, portrayed by Nathaniel Stampley; Irish immigrant Owen Duignan, who is Annie's nephew, played by A.J. Shively; Washington Henry, an escaped slave, portrayed by Sidney DuPont; and others.

In the musical, topics of racism, the Draft Riots of 1863, immigration, slavery and other societal issues are prominent throughout the story line. But what's also of note is that the play brings to the forefront that this was a unique community of New Yorkers striving to live in harmony with one another despite all the chaos at that time.

"Paradise Square," produced by Garth Drabinsky, features a book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. The play is directed by Tony winner Moisés Kaufman with the score written by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen along with Masi Asare and Larry Kirwan.

While strong choreography and powerhouse musical numbers are engaging, the production remains a bit too long and some of the characters need more fleshing out, namely the character of famed American composer Stephen Foster, who weaves in and out of his somewhat confusing role in the show. Segments of some Foster songs are blended nicely into the score of "Paradise Square." (History states that Foster spent some time in Five Points.)

The highlights in "Paradise Square" are most definitely the exuberant dance numbers and the emotionally-charged vocals of the lead characters.

Kalukango as Nelly offers superb vocals throughout. Her performance of the powerful "Let It Burn" tugs at the heartstrings.

Dance performances by Shively and DuPont receive high praise for energy and technical prowess. Both are a joy to watch.

Other highlighted numbers include "Paradise Square," "Camptown Races," "Gentle Annie," "Angelina Baker," "Someone to Love" and "Breathe Easy."

FYI: "Paradise Square" continues to Dec. 7 at Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago. For ticket information, visit BroadwayInChicago.com.

JOAQUINA KALUKANGO—A NIGHT TO REMEMBER! +

by Ed Tracy

The fiercely defiant performance of Joaquina Kalukango in the role of Nelly O’Brien electrifies the ambitious new Garth H. Drabinsky produced musical “Paradise Square” directed by Moisés Kaufman that opened its pre-Broadway run on Wednesday at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre. Throttling up in the face of adversity through the clash of cultures story during the Civil War, Kalukango stunned the opening night audience with the epic and emotional Act II anthem “Let It Burn” that resonates with such strength as to cross generational lines and echo the issues of our time. It is a powerful coda to a complex musical about social inequality and unrest whose score splendidly weaves together 19th-century Irish immigrant and African American dance styles.

Up front, it is important to note that after nearly three years of civil war, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, however, the Proclamation only applied to specified rebellious states and regions. When it was enacted on January 1, 1863, the Proclamation had already served as much to define the war as a fight for freedom from slavery as it did to further polarize the unsettling and growing hostility between the surging immigrant communities in the North and those freeborn Black Americans and escaped slaves seeking a safe haven.

The Five Points district in New York City was a melting pot for freeborn Black Americans and Irish immigrant populations whose work and intermixed family lives found common ground in the shared desperation of poverty. Fueled by white upper class discrimination that perpetuated their containment to the area, the cultures were actually allowed to coexist and, in many cases, prosper in the midst of the deplorable conditions. However, what could be a new order was not. As casualties from the long and brutal war continued to mount, attitudes sharply eroded. In April 1863, when Congress enacted a draft that exempted those who could pay their way out of service or enlist a substitute in their place, the inequities were laid bare. The draft order also unjustly disqualified the Black population in New York from serving, despite many other regiments already in place, leading to descension, mistrust, and, ultimately, violence in the form of the death and destruction during the July 1863 New York Draft Riots.

It is at this historical tipping point that the show begins with a flashback to Five Points in late 1862, with the escalating war as a dramatic background. Nelly (Kalukango) is the Black owner of Paradise Square, a brothel that welcomes everyone to mix and celebrate. With her white husband, Will O’Brien (Matt Bogart), her brother Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley) and his wife Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy), the titular opening number exudes the ethnic stamp of the neighborhood as a welcoming, inclusive and safe place. We quickly meet Annie’s nephew, Owen Duignan (A.J.Shivley), an Irish immigrant and Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), an escaped slave who are given shelter by Nelly and her husband while Milton Moore a/k/a Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel) is offered a job as a piano player.

There are several storylines to unpack along the way within the book written by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, who is also credited with conceiving the work. Nelly and Annie are under scrutiny by the uptown boss Frederic Tiggins (John Dossett) that results in fines and threats of closure. When “Lucky” Mike Quinlan (Kevin Dennis) returns from the war disabled and bitter about his personal situation and the loss of jobs available for Irish dockworkers, he leads a public protest against the draft decree that will further diminish the rights of Irish immigrants who are at the top of the draft list. Fearing that he will be drafted to fight for a cause he does not believe in, Owen competes for a $300 prize—a year's pay at the time—that will buy his exemption from service, while Washington, desperate to be reunited with his wife Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton), walks a tight rope between the flight to freedom and prosecution for past actions.

The company of over fifty actors and musicians perform twenty musical numbers—music by Jason Howland with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare—on a massive, multi-level Allen Moyer designed urban set that evokes a gritty, mid-19th century landscape and incorporates gorgeous Toni-Leslie James costumes. The orchestral arrangements would benefit greatly with the addition of a box accordion for a larger and more varied interpretation in the Irish step-dancing numbers enhancing the strong fusion of all of the dance numbers. Bill T. Jones choreography is exhilarating. The music of Stephen Foster is uniquely interpreted by Kirwan including “Oh Susanna” all superbly performed by the ensemble. Notable highlights include Stampley and DuPont’s “I’d Be A Soldier”, Kalukango and Kennedy’s touching ballad “Someone to Love” and “Ring, Ring the Banjo”—a perfect spot for a banjo solo. The wide-ranging elements of the book tend to minimize Nelly’s compelling story. In the shadow of a devastating war, there is more than enough material to increase the dramatic tension, but that hardly matters to the overall enjoyment of the searing final moments of Kalukango’s exhilarating performance that will make anyone’s visit to “Paradise Square” a night to remember.

Around the Town Chicago Paradise Square Review +

by Alan Bresloff
November 18, 2021

It has been some time since Chicago had a Pre-Broadway opening! Of course, the pandemic didn’t help, but now that theater is coming back, we are fortunate enough to have the pre-Broadway run of “Paradise Square” a new musical with a book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. The music is by Jason Howland with lyrics by Nathan Tysen & Masi Asare. Kirwan is also the person who conceived the show and added some music to the score. Kirwan’s songs are inspired by the works of Stephen Foster and during the play, we learn more about Foster and his work. There is even a line in the play about his music, that it seems it was written as if those serving as slaves were enjoying the music about their lives. It makes one think a little deeper about racism and where we are over 150 years after the story contained in the play took place.

The story takes place in an area of New York called Five Points, a rough area located in Lower Manhattan. It was an area that was wild and home to the Black population that had been freed and Irish immigrants who had freed themselves called “home”. Over time, these two segments of society became “family” with many interracial marriages and even the escaped slaves found sanctuary in what they called “Paradise Square”.

Understand that there were other problems in the country at this time. A Civil War and a thing called the “draft” where rich people could buy their way out for $300 and Blacks were not invited to participate. The poor Irish immigrants were left to be taken into a fight they knew little about and they stirred up the riots that would be a disaster in the area.

The set (Allen Moyer) is one that allows for easy change of scenes making this two and a half hour show seem quicker. It has levels and rotates in a manner that it can become the bar where most of the action takes place. The score is powerful for the most part and Director Moisés Kaufman shows his skill in using the stage to its fullest, but the dance ( choreographed by Bill T. Jones) is where this production truly shines. After all, while this story is about the culture and people of the times, it is also about dance. Yes! Dance is the underlying theme to this marvelous show and the dancers in this production are amazingly talented. We all know Michael Flatley, “The Lord of the Dance”, right? These dancers can do him one better. The African Juba and the Irish Step/jig merged into what we call “tap” dancing and as we all know every big Broadway production has a toe-tapping tap number to wow us- well, this baby has some numbers that will take the wind out of you and put a smile on your face.

While the score is not special, being a new show I am pretty sure that when it comes back to Chicago after its Broadway run, we will see and hear different songs. Shows do change as they open. There are songs in this show that are powerful and one particular piece in the second act “Let It Burn” sung by Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango is perfect for this role as the owner of the bar) is a show-stopper. A standing ovation before the song was over and another when it was finished ( maybe 3 minutes of applause and cheers from the packed house at The Nederlander Theatre). I must tell you, a tear swelled up in each eye during this number!

The cast of players is made up of all types of people and their voices are all dynamite. Besides Ms. Kalukango as Nelly O’Brien, we have Chilina Kennedy as Annie Lewis and Nathaniel Stampley as her husband Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis. The story is about the immigrants and the “slaves” so we central in on one of each. Owen ( played to perfection by A.J. Shively, who is quite the “jig” dancer) the immigrant and Washington (Sidney DuPont) a runaway slave who it turns out is a wanted man for killing his “master”. These men compete for the big prize in an amazing dance competition. Other cast members of note are John Dossett (the bad guy Fredric Tiggens) Kevin Dennis as “Lucky” Mike Quinlin, Matt Bogart as Willie O’Brien, Nelly’s husband, Jacob Fishel as Milton Moore and Gabrielle McClinton as Angelina Baker. The ensemble is strong in both dance and song, making each character feel real. Watching these stories evolve we get the sense that this is a history lesson and one that needs to be heard. As a country we still have a long way to go. Here was a community that had no racial divides, living together, marrying each other and becoming family. I was impressed by the story, the cast and the overall experience of seeing a show that I think will be around for many years.

Pre-Broadway’s historical “Paradise Square” poised to be “Hamilton” huge +

by Andy Argyrakis

Broadway In Chicago started showing signs of post-lockdown life with a national tour of “Rent,” but it truly came bounding back with the long-delayed debut of “Paradise Square,” which gains additional significance as the America’s first pre-Big Apple premiere of the era.

However, the musical set in New York City’s Five Points slum in 1863 as the Civil War raged actually started sowing its seeds a decade ago, but continues to be refined, and in the process, reflects all that much more relevance today.

Given its historical context and based on the audience’s reception, at least as far as opening night at the James M. Nederlander Theatre was concerned, its poised to be “Hamilton” huge thanks to a dynamite cast, magnetic soundtrack, tremendous choreography, and perhaps most importantly, so many lessons to be learned it will likely take days to fully digest.

The complex but well-positioned premise revolves around Irish immigrants, who were seeking refuge from the Great Famine, settling alongside both free-born Black Americans and slaves who escaped on the Underground Railroad.

Despite their differences, the two impoverished communities embraced one another, joined together in marriage, raised families and combined their rich cultures, frequently revolving around the “Paradise Square” tavern that welcomed everyone.

Though it’s unclear if the show is an exact depiction of precisely what happened or adapts artistic liberties in order to streamline the storyline into a digestible runtime of a couple hours and change remains to be seen, but it makes no difference in terms of ultimate impact.

In fact, “Paradise Square” could easily become the subject of many college theses to come, but in the meantime, it’s positively gripping a diverse audience as it takes deep dives into politics, prejudices, privilege, and ideally, the pursuit of peace in the ashes of the deadly NY Draft Riots.

All the while, Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango, as the trailblazing bar owner Nelly O’Brien, is a certified superstar-in-the-making whose jaw-dropping rendition of the showstopping “Let It Burn” could easily be in the running for this century’s stand out thus far. Fellow belter Chilina Kennedy, as her sister-in-law Annie Lewis, is right up there when it comes to charisma, while A.J. Shively, as their nephew Owen Duignan, and Sidney DuPont, as fugitive Washington Henry, rival one another with their Irish step and African Juba dancing abilities.

In other words, “Paradise Square” is certain to sweep the Tonys in so many categories and the Windy City was amongst the very earliest to be in the room where it happened before making its way to conquer the Great White Way.

Hosea Sanders on Paradise Square +

by Hosea Sanders

“I was blown away by the powerful vocal performances and exhilarating choreography, highlighting a historical era that deserves this celebration.”

The Fourth Walsh “Paradise Square” (Broadway in Chicago): Epic Tale, Endearing Relationships and DANCING! +

by Bill Esler
November 19, 2021

Broadway in Chicago presents the Pre-Broadway Musical PARADISE SQUARE.

From the very first to the very last note, Joaquina Kalukango (Nellie) owns the bar, the stage, and the show. The phenomenal Kalukango welcomes the audience and patrons to her tavern with a rebel-rousing “Paradise Square.” Much later in the show, Kalukango belts out, literally and figuratively, the show-stopping “Let It Burn.” Her unforgettable delivery blazes with a fierce intensity. She. Crushes. It! The perfection of the moment is met with an impromptu standing ovation. Bravo, Kalukango!

In between these two bookend numbers, Kalukango’s jovial moxie amuses and intrigues as multiple stories unfold. Nellie is a successful black entrepreneur happily married to an Irish immigrant. Her pioneering spirit is even more admirable knowing that this is the mid 1800s… during the Civil War. All the stories are rooted in a Manhattan slum neighborhood where Irish immigrants live alongside free-born Black Americans.

The show was conceived by Larry Kirwan and written by him, Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, and Craig Lucas. The score was composed by Jason Howland with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. The creative team centers their characters and songs around the real-life event of when the government drafted men to fight in the Civil War. To avoid military service, a man had to pay $300 or be Black. Irish immigrants protested.

Moisés Kaufman (director), Jason Howland (musical direction), Bill T. Jones (choreographer) utilize a rock solid ensemble for masterful storytelling. The epic tale is weaved tightly together in the endearing relationships. A feisty Chilina Kennedy (Annie) reminds her reserved husband (played by Nathaniel Stampley) who he married in the playful “Gentle Annie.” Later, Kennedy and her sister-in-law (Kalukango) sing a heart-tugging duet called “Someone to Love.” These two strong women captivate with a beautifully authentic bond. Throughout the show, Sidney DuPont (Washington) pines for his true love with “Angelina Baker”. His reminiscing is accompanied by Jones’ well-choreographed movements to illustrate slavery and plantation life.

The dancing throughout the show is fantastic! Jones’ dancers demonstrate how African juba and Irish stepping led to American Tap. DuPont and A.J. Shively (Owen) lead the rhythmic spectacle with ongoing dance competitions. Their physicality and energetic feats are transfixing. Other dancers join into the numbers for a stage bursting with feet kicking, skirt swirling, fun-loving merriment. It’s like Riverdance meets Stomp over at the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s dance studio. Even though I loved the stories and the singing, the dancing was my favorite!

PARADISE SQUARE is so much more than a musical. It’s a history lesson and cautionary tale. History repeats itself as classism, immigration rights, Black Lives Matter, corrupt politicians and even an insurrection become the topical backbone of the show. The show boasts TWO interracial marriages and female empowerment for both Kalukango and Kennedy. These layers create an additional wistful nod to how-far-we-have-NOT-come. The depth and breadth of PARADISE SQUARE is a thought-provoking message for both present and future generations. If we learned to be more empathic to others’ struggles, we would stop repeating our inhumane history.

PARADISE SQUARE has its Broadway premiere in March 2022. Although it’s in great shape, it could use some tightening especially in the longer first act. I highly recommend seeing it in Chicago, on Broadway and at the Tonys!

Moments of Glory in 'Paradise Square' at Nederlander Chicago +

November 4, 2021

It’s hard to cheer and yell with a mask on. But that I did right along with the entire crowd at “Paradise Square,” as Joaquina Kalukango delivered a shatteringly powerful show-stopper, “Let It Burn,” holding the audience in her thrall for every second.

This was the best but not the only great moment in “Paradise Square,” which opened its five-week, pre-Broadway run November 2 at the Nederlander Theater and officially opens November 17. It’s the relatively unknown tale of the Five Points District in New York City, the tough section that is portrayed circa 1846 in “Gangs of New York.”

Set during the Civil War in 1863, “Paradise Square” tells of the Black community of free-born men and women who lived in harmony with Irish immigrants, intermarrying, and singing and dancing together. The score draws on the music of Stephen Foster, who had lived and worked in the Five Points.

But as the Civil War rages on, the Union declares an unprecedented military draft, affecting only white working men. Blacks were exempted from the draft because they were not considered citizens. Wealthy people could hire substitutes. The immigrants resisted, and eventually turned on their Black neighbors to vent their rage, leading to the infamous New York Draft Riots of July 1863. This is not glossed over in "Paradise Square" but is the main plot point. Kalukango plays the central role of Nelly O’Brien, proprietor of the saloon in which the action takes place. Her Irish immigrant husband is Willy O'Brien (Matt Bogart); her sister-in-law Annie O’Brien (Chilina Kennedy) also works in the saloon, though her husband is a preacher, Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley).

Kalukango is the dramatic anchor throughout the show, but it is her transcendent performance of "Let It Burn" that also serves as the climax of the plot, and its denouement. We’re talking Jennifer-Hudson-in-Dreamgirls calber, perhaps even better. Really!

Other spectacular moments include the performance of A.J. Shively as newly arrived Irish immigrant Owen Duignan. Shively is a sensational singer and dancer. Each time his lilting, filigreed tenor launched into “Why Should I Die in Springtime,” tears welled in my eyes.

Chilina Kennedy gives us an Annie that is a firebrand and a spark plug. The beauty of her soprano is a perfect complement to Kalukango’s powerful mezzo-soprano. When the two sing a duet, it is sublime.

But this is even more a show about dance. Featuring choreography by Bill T. Jones, it shows off many dance styles, emphasizing Irish step-dancing and Black American Juba, as well as tap dancing, believed to have originated in Five Points. Jones’s choreography greets us as soon as the curtain rises in an opening scene in which the preacher blesses departing soldiers, two wraiths do what might be described as a liturgical dance.

Jones also crafts the visual representations of the Underground Railroad, which in this show is given parity with Ellis Island as a point of entry for Black immigrants from the South. "Paradise Square" breaks new ground in its full embrace of the Black journey as a part of all of our stories in the formation of America.

Produced by Garth Drabinsky, “Paradise Square” is directed by Tony Award nominee Moisés Kaufman and a book by Christina Anderson Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. The production features the “re-imagined” songs of Stephen Foster and original compositions, with a score by Jason Howland, Nathan Tyson, Masi Asare, and Kirwan.

There are some weaknesses in "Paradise Square." As might be expected with four hands scripting and five composers involved, we have a story that is everything and the kitchen sink, plus music and dance. The music is continuous and at times, soaring. But much of it is undistinguished. The second half is refreshingly direct, and regardless of its shortcomings, "Paradise Square" is not to be missed.

Top 10 reasons to see 'Paradise Square' on Broadway +

Discover more about why you can't miss this Tony Award-winning musical.
June 21, 2022

Musical theatre paradise is at the Barrymore Theatre in the form of Paradise Square, one of the most Tony-nominated hit shows of 2022. The show takes its name from a fictional tavern run by an interracial couple, Nelly and Willie O'Brien, who represent the broader congregation of Irish immigrants and free Blacks in 1863 Lower Manhattan. Their bar is a place where these two groups mingle in harmony — until the Draft Riots of 1863 break out and pit them against each other.

Paradise Square isn't just your average history lesson, though. This show bursts with energetic song and dance and puts a fresh twist on history, representing broad issues through the love and tension between a small group of characters. Plus, the show features the work of lots of diverse, pioneering creators, including Tony Award winner Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly. Read on to discover more reasons why Paradise Square might just be your little piece of Eden, and get your tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

It's a mega-musical with a huge cast.

If you like old-fashioned spectacle on stage, Paradise Square is the musical for you: A 40-person ensemble performs the show's rousing song-and-dance numbers. This ensemble mainly plays the regulars at the Paradise Square tavern, and the performers deliver all the excitement and energy you'd expect from a bustling bar, with more rhythm. Plus, the group numbers will catch your eye and make you want to groove along, but the size of the ensemble also makes the solo numbers stand out that much more

Paradise Square received 10 Tony nominations in 2022.

With those 10 nominations, Paradise Square was the second-most nominated show of the 2021-22 Broadway season, second only to A Strange Loop's 11 and tied with MJ The Musical. Its nominations included Best Musical, Best Leading Actress in a Musical (for Joaquina Kalukango, who won), Best Featured Actor in a Musical (for A.J. Shively and Sidney DuPont), Best Choreography, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. Find out more about Paradise Square at the 2022 Tony Awards.

Tony winner Joaquina Kalukango brings the house down.

If you watched the 2022 Tony Awards broadcast, you saw Kalukango's ferocious performance of "Let It Burn," the showstopping 11 o'clock number of Paradise Square. And we literally mean showstopping — Kalukango delivers that song with that much passion and force every night, regularly earning a mid-show standing ovation. That's not even to mention the rest of the show, where she delivers gentleness, joy, pain, and so much more as Nelly O'Brien. It's no wonder she won the Tony Award, and her performance can't be missed.

The musical features the work of trailblazing Black artists.

In addition to Kalukango and lots of other performers on stage, there are lots of Black creatives behind the scenes that made Paradise Square possible. These include choreographer Bill T. Jones and costume designer Toni-Leslie James, both 2022 Tony nominees with decades-long careers in the theatre. There are also Broadway-debut artists who, though they didn't win in their respective categories, made history just by being nominated.

Masi Asare, who co-wrote the lyrics and was co-nominated for Best Original Score, became the fifth Black woman in history to be nominated in that category. And Christina Anderson, one of the bookwriters of Paradise Square co-nominated for Best Book of a Musical, was only the seventh Black woman in history to be nominated in that category. By seeing Paradise Square, you'll be supporting the work of trailblazing Black female artists.

Paradise Square is based on real history you might not know about.

The Paradise Square tavern may be fictional, but its neighborhood isn't. The Five Points neighborhood on the Lower East Side is sometimes called the "original American melting pot," as the cultural mixing of its free Black and immigrant Irish populations — the neighborhood's earliest residents — actually happened. Plus, there was a Black-owned dance hall called Almack's where Irish and African dance were known to have combined, and this hall is a clear inspiration for Paradise Square.

The tension between the groups depicted in the musical, too, is part of New York history. The major historical conflict dramatized in Paradise Square is the 1863 Draft Riots, which were mainly led by working-class Irish men who resented the draft and later turned into riots targeting Black people. This large-scale racial conflict is shown through a small group of once-close-knit characters at the tavern, giving emotional heft to the history on stage.

There's lot's of high-energy dancing.

Jones's choreography borrows from two main dance styles: Irish step and African juba, representing the cultural histories of the two ethnic groups who collided in Five Points. As the show progresses, these two styles combine more and more. One of the key scenes, for example, is a dance-off between the Irish Owen (Shively) and the Black Washington (DuPont), who start out each doing their own styles but cleverly incorporate each other's as they go on.

What's more, this blend of styles is historically accurate. In real life, which the choreography alludes to, those two styles combined into modern tap dance! So if you've ever seen and loved high-stepping theatre tap numbers on a Broadway stage, go and see Paradise Square to discover how they came to be.

You might hear some familiar classic tunes.

In addition to original songs by composer Jason Howland and lyricists Masi Asare and Nathan Tysen, Paradise Square includes some songs from the songbook of Stephen Foster. Foster is considered the "father of American music," and his classic American folk songs include "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races." Paradise Square doesn't just slot in his music for historical accuracy, though: Foster is a character in the musical, and the show sheds a new, critical light on the way he created his famous tunes.

Paradise Square is one of multiple history musicals on Broadway right now.

Musicals like Hamilton and Six have already earned success not just on Broadway, but worldwide, for putting a fresh spin on historical events (the lives of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and Henry VIII's six wives, respectively). If you enjoyed those shows, why not give Paradise Square a try? This show stands apart from those not just because it centers on a different era of history, but uses a different musical style. Whereas Hamilton is rooted in hip-hop and rap and Six uses pop, Paradise Square employs a more classic musical theatre sound with folk influences.

Paradise Square is part of a trifecta with the beloved musicals Show Boat and Ragtime.

Each of these shows musicalizes a different era of American history, and they all focus on race relations and feature a large ensemble cast. Producer Garth Drabinsky is behind them all, beginning with the 1993 Show Boat revival and continuing with the 1998 premiere of Ragtime on Broadway. Though it premiered last, Paradise Square is the first in historical order: The show is set in 1863, while Show Boat begins in 1887 and Ragtime in the early 1900s. If you're a fan of either or both of these musicals, see what other similarities you can spot!

The show delivers a message of hope for the future.

Though the Draft Riots, racism, classism, and more threaten the harmony between the Paradise Square characters, Nelly relentlessly fights to preserve the safety, harmony, and community she's fostered for them all at her tavern. Ultimately, the show presents a hopeful vision for an equitable, inclusive society where everyone fights for each other, instead of against each other.

Joaquina Kalukango talks Tony win for ‘Paradise Square’ +

June 22, 2022

Broadway star Joaquina Kalukango joins Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager to talk about her jaw-dropping performance during the 2022 Tony Awards and going on to win the prize for lead actress in a musical that night. She also talks about the loving support from family and teachers that she has received over the years.

WATCH VIDEO

2022 Tony Award-winner Joaquina Kalukango stops by the studio +

June 18, 2022
by Frank DiLella

On Stage host Frank DiLella sits down with Joaquina Kalukango who won the 2022 Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical for her work as Nelly O’Brien in “Paradise Square.”

WATCH VIDEO

How Tony Winner Joaquina Kalukango Got Ready for Her Big Night +

June 13, 2022

Joaquina Kalukango’s Tony Awards night was one for the books. The Broadway star not only moved the audience with an emotional performance of ballad “Let It Burn” from Civil War-era musical Paradise Square, but earned a second standing ovation when she took home the Tony for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical./p>

On her big night, Kalukango looked every bit the gilded star wearing a gold beaded gown designed by her sister, Rachel Kalukango Harris. “My sister lives for all things African due to our culture, so we chose this fabric because it highlights true power, femininity, and a sense of royalty,” explains Kalukango Harris of the inspiration behind the dress, which was accessorized with matching metallic Valentino platforms and Swarovski jewels. “It’s a representation of the queen that exudes within and through Joaquina Kalukango.”

Kalukango wore an equally regal beauty look with gleaming skin and copper-smoked lids courtesy of makeup artist Michael D. Patterson, and a sculptural braided hair look rich in symbolism. “We wanted to maintain Joaquina’s artistic African aesthetic and because braids hugely represent culture for African women, I started there,” says hairstylist Tish Celestine, who braided Kalukango’s hair into cornrows before crafting a tall updo with spiraled shapes that held a deeper meaning. “The circles represent this full circle moment,” explains Celestine, who has been a friend and collaborator of Kalukango for eight years and is reveling in this moment for her. On top of being both beautiful and emblematic, the style, which was comprised of different plaited pieces, was one that Celestine could take down for Kalukango’s performance and reassemble in a matter of minutes. A inspiring feat of artistry, indeed.

Here, Kalukango takes Vogue inside her getting-ready session for the Tony Awards 2022.

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Tony Nominee Joaquina Kalukango Is In ‘Paradise' +

May 23, 2022

Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango talks with Sara Gore about her breakout role in “Paradise Square.”

WATCH THE INTERVIEW

How Joaquina Kalukango Found Her Power On Broadway In ‘Paradise Square’ +

by Jeryl Brunner
May 7, 2022

Some performances are so transcendent they make an indelible mark on your soul. Time seems to stop. And you cannot believe that you were there to witness it all.

Experiencing Joaquina Kalukango perform the song “Let It Burn” in the new musical Paradise Square is one of those moments.

Kalukango plays dynamo bar owner Nelly O’Brien. The time is 1863. O’Brien, whose father escaped slavery, lives in and runs the Paradise Square bar in a Manhattan neighborhood known as The Five Points. A caring matriarch, over and over O’Brien offers safety and solace to the community, while risking her own life.

“I was so excited to play this woman who was born free,” says Kalukango whose own parents were political refugees who fled Angola. “This is a time period that most people don't really know and usually see African Americans in a certain light. But I love that Nelly owns this bar in the middle of New York city.”

During that time in history the Five Points community was a cultural marvel. The nation was in the midst of the civil war. Racial tensions and poverty was crippling. And yet in this neighborhood escaped slaves and born-free African Americans lived and worked side-by-side with Irish immigrants. They intermarried as the place became a kind of cultural mecca.

The Five Points are credited as the birthplace of modern tap dance. The locale also generated new forms of music that are said to be a precursor to jazz and rock and roll. “The Five Points is known for violence, poverty and destruction,” says Kalukango. "But we also show a different side—including love and community between these different groups.”

Now playing at the Barrymore Theatre, Paradise Square features a book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare, additional music by Kirwan and was inspired in part by the songs of Stephen Foster. The show is directed by Moisés Kaufman, choreographed by Bill T. Jones and produced by Garth Drabinsky.

During “Let It Burn” Kalukango, as Nelly O’Brien, arms outstretched, bears her soul. She unleashes a riveting anthem of hope, power and possibilities. “This is a story that does not get told often,” says Kalukango who was last on Broadway in Slave Play and nominated for a Tony Award for her performance. She was also was nominated for a SAG Award playing Betty X in Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami. “Our show is about community, power and what America truly could be.”

Jeryl Brunner: How did you first learn about Paradise Square?

Joaquina Kalukango: In May 2021, I was sent a sent a packet with a lot of information about the production. I also got a clip of the cast performing on CBS Sunday Morning. I was shook. I thought, this is phenomenal. I was also terrified when I got the music. I've never led a musical before. This was something that was on my bucket list. But even though I was terrified, I couldn't pass it up. The show is an original musical, which I love. Also, this is a New York story and has a history that a lot of us don't know,. I never learned about it in school. I was fascinated.

Brunner: What specially spoke to you?

Kalukango: Jason Howland, who wrote the music, is a genius. Initially, I fell in love with the music first because that was the first thing I heard. Then Christina Anderson came along to really develop the script. In ten years it's gone through so many iterations. It’s the first time that they focused the story specifically through Nelly's journey.

Brunner: What qualities does Nelly have that you adore?

Kalukango: I wanted to make sure that you could see so many different sides of Nelly. She is the owner of a bar and a businesswoman. But she's also so deeply in love with her husband. I wanted people to see that love and her joy. She provided this place where so many people could feel free and be themselves. That speaks to who she was. She was a woman ahead of her time. We usually get accounts of females then, especially African American females. So to have her voice and strong spirit in the room was really exciting. Her bravery and belief in herself and community is something to admire. She’s fearless.

Brunner: I think about your parents who were immigrants from Angola and came to live in Atlanta. Do you feel a connection to The Five Points because of your own background?

Kalukango: Absolutely. I connect so deeply to Nelly's character specifically, because I'm a daddy's girl. My father passed away two years ago. It’s the the same for Nelly. Her father passed away as well. She was raised by her father with that sensibility of independence and structure.

I have so much respect for my father because he and my mother were political refugees fleeing from the war. There’s Nelly’s father who had to escape slavery and come to New York. I think about the journey that they people sacrificed for their children to have better lives. I take that to my soul. They are the reason I'm here and I'm able to pursue what I love to do in this country. And I'm so grateful for that opportunity.

Brunner: Did your father get to see you in Slave Play?

Kalukango: He didn't. He passed just before and has been advocating for me since then because there has been many blessings.

If he saw me as Nelly he would have so much joy. My daddy, came to all of my shows, so I know he would be super excited. When my mom saw me in Paradise Square she told me for the first time that she couldn't speak.. I thought, I've never seen my mom be speechless after a performance. I’d like to think my dad probably would be speechless too.

Brunner: How did you get to be a performer?

Kalukango: In middle school had an amazing guidance counselor, Mrs. Jones. She saw me in a talent show. Mind you, the performance was horrible because I was singing to a recording of Monica’s “Angel of Mine.” I didn't have a karaoke track or just an instrumental. So it was literally a voice and I was singing over it into a mic. So you could barely hear me. But somehow she said, ‘you need to audition for the Tri-Cities High School Visual and Performing Arts Magnet program.

She literally changed my life. At the time I was the captain of drill team. So I was just going down a completely different path. My father was a carver who created wood paintings and carvings. But nobody else that I know of in my family was an artist.

Brunner: So did you audition for Tri-Cities High School?

Kalukango: Yes, I auditioned with a monologue from the internet. It didn’t come from a play. And I think I sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” And I got in.

In the ninth grade, our first production was the musical Sarafina! about apartheid in South Africa. It was a lesson in discipline and focus. They put us through the wringer to really get into the mindset of these amazing kids at this time. We were so focused and learning south African accents, singing full out. It was just the most intense joy that I've ever had. And I knew at that moment, I don't want to do anything else. I thought, this is it. This is life.

Brunner: Do you remember when you got the call that you were going to play Nettie in the revival of the Color Purple?

Kalukango: I remember that phone call because I was literally on the train platform. I was about to learn how to go be a bartender and enroll myself in these classes to make money. It was a desperate time. And then I got the call from my agents literally as I was getting on the train and sobbed like a baby. It was was partly because I knew that me and Danielle Brooks, one of my best friends from Juilliard, were both going to be in the show.

Brunner: Is there something you would tell your little girl self who was singing in the middle school talent show?

Kalukango: I would say, ‘don’t be scared of your voice. Sing every day and get out there.’ I was so terrified to sing for the longest time. It took up until now for me to fully embrace my voice and figure out how to use it. I never really took singing seriously. And also, I’m learning how to advocate for myself to speak up.

Brunner: How did you get the courage to let your voice shine?

Kalukango: I've been really lucky to have people along the way, like Deborah Lapidus at Juilliard. I also had directors who saw something in me and pushed and stretched me and gave me opportunities. My voice teacher, Joan Lader, said ‘don't ever not call yourself a singer ever again.’ From the jump, when we first started working together, she helped me figure out the mechanics of singing and all it entails. It opened up my eyes to a whole new possibility that I don't think I had before.

Break a Leg but Never Whistle: How Stage Superstitions Live On +

The return of the Scottish play (that’s “Macbeth” to the rest of you) is a reminder of the idiosyncratic rituals and routines that bring actors comfort.
by Alexis Soloski
April 27, 2022

Theaters are superstitious places, sites of myth, ceremony and invocation. And no stage superstition has more adherents than the one shrouding Shakespeare’s Scottish play: Anyone in a theater who speaks the name Macbeth aloud, except when rehearsing or performing the play, risks catastrophe.

“I said the Scottish play’s title onstage,” the playwright Lynn Nottage recalled recently. “And the next day my mother died.”

When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars ceremony, Twitter wags invoked the curse. Moments before the fracas, Rock had hailed Denzel Washington, a star of Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” saying: “‘Macbeth!’ Loved it!” When performances of the current Broadway revival of “Macbeth” were canceled after its leading man, Daniel Craig, tested positive for coronavirus, talk of the curse swirled again.

Admittedly, the “Macbeth” prohibition has its origins in nonsense, as an invention of the 19th-century critic and essayist Max Beerbohm. In 1898, Beerbohm wrote a column claiming, falsely, that a young male actor had died just before the play’s debut. But the taboo took, and stories of “Macbeth”-adjacent injuries, accidents and deaths began to accumulate. (Don’t fear: If you pronounce the name by accident, you can counteract the curse by leaving the theater, performing a ritual that often involves spinning and spitting, and then asking to be let back in.)

More recently, this taboo has kept company with other stage shibboleths — don’t say “good luck,” don’t wear green, don’t give flowers, don’t whistle, don’t put mirrors onstage, always leave a light on.

Superstition isn’t unique to the theater, of course. But as Marvin Carlson, a theater professor and the author of “The Haunted Stage,” pointed out, theater does encourage otherworldly thinking. “There are very few haunted banks,” he said. “But most theaters are said to be haunted. It’s a very, very common feature. Clearly there is something about the aura of theaters.”

Anjna Chouhan, a lecturer in Shakespeare studies, agreed: “They’re bizarre spaces, right? They’re weird spaces where people are performing fantasy, and emotions run so high.”

A lot can go wrong during live performance — a flubbed line, a missed cue, a wonky prop. Chouhan suggested that actors may subscribe to superstitions and engage in some very particular preshow and post-show rituals as a way of keeping this contingency at bay. “There’s a lot to be said for ritual and routine,” Chouhan said. “It’s the way that you enforce your control over things that can’t be controlled.”

Some actors always leave the dressing room on a certain foot, others say a prayer. Some carry lucky charms. “When you take on a character, you’re doing something dangerous. You’re in some way playing with your essence or your soul,” Carlson explained. “You take a charm to protect yourself as much as you can.”

The Times spoke to a handful of performers currently in Broadway shows — believers and skeptics — about superstitions, personal rites and whether they have ever had a moment in the theater that flirted with the supernatural. (No “Macbeth” actors would participate. Is there a superstition associated with speaking to reporters?) These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

A.J. Shively, 'Paradise Square'

Have you ever had an experience in the theater that felt out of the ordinary?
Never in any kind of scary or frightening way. But whenever I go into an old Broadway house, I go onstage and look at the house and think about the incredible people who have seen this exact view before me. I went out on the stage here at the Barrymore, where the original “Streetcar” was. I said, “Stella!”

Do you have a preshow ritual?
I made my Broadway debut in “La Cage Aux Folles.” An actress, Christine Andreas, told me to go down to the stage when the audience is filing in to just feel their energy and send your energy out. I’ve done that ever since.

What about a postshow ritual?
I reward myself with a pint of ice cream.

Broadway’s Paradise Square offers master class in theatre productions +

by Kevin M. Thomas
April 25, 2022

Jennifer Holliday in Dreamgirls. James Monroe Iglehart in Aladdin. And now, Joaquina Kalukango in Paradise Square.

Each of these actors has a moment in the show that is pure magic and it is the reason I go to the theatre. Not only do their vocals soar through the theatre and out into the street, but their strong vocals make us feel their emotions and it astonishes me that they can give so much of themselves eight times a week.

How they can give it their all at every performance is beyond comprehension — but I am totally engaged in their performance and feel I am part of something bigger than just sitting in the theatre.

Kalukango is captivating throughout Paradise Square, where she plays the owner of a saloon, which proves to be a safe haven for Black Americans and Irish immigrants in lower Manhattan. But it’s her second act show-stopping number “Let It Burn” that brought me to emotional tears and made me not only relate to the plight of her character but made me also giddy that I was there to witness such a performance. My heart and mind say Tony Award – let’s just see. But awards or not, her performance will go down as one of the greatest musical performances I have seen in my many years of theatergoing.

While she is definitely the star, she is supported by a wonderful cast. Chilina Kennedy as Annie Lewis, a strong Irish woman, almost stands toe-to-toe with Kalukango’s Nelly character – but Kennedy is off-stage a bit more than I’d like.

Then there’s that dancing. Not only is Bill T. Jones’ choreography flawless (no easy feat with the size of the cast) but he manages to put together a dance-off between Sidney DuPont and A.J. Shively, which will leave you as breathless as the actors themselves.

Director Moises Kaufman offers a master class in stage production. “Paradise Square” is set on a grandiose scale, rivaling “Les Miserables” with sets and “Ragtime” with characterization and pace. Perhaps having three people work on the show’s book was a great thing as we get a taste of Ireland from Larry Kirwan, modern sensibilities from Christina Anderson and sage wisdom and input from Tony nominee Craig Lucas.

I went into “Paradise Square” not knowing what to expect. I left with a wonderful theatre experience that I will remember for a long, long time.

Routes: A Guide to African-American Culture Tapping Through Time: New Perspectives on Tap Dance +

by Sandhi Smalls Santini

At a recent Routes editorial meeting, there was a deep and somewhat heated conversation about the new musical on Broadway called “Paradise Square.” Produced by the Tony-winning producer Garth H. Drabinsky and conceived by Larry Kirwan, the show is set in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City circa 1863. It puts poor Irish immigrants escaping the devastation of the Great Famine and Black Americans (both escpaed slaves and free-born) into the Lower Manhattan slum. The two communities co-existed, intermarried, raised families, and shared their cultures, in part through raucous dance contests held in neighborhood bars and dance halls. It is here, at least as far as the play represents where tap dancing was born.

The musical was inspired, in part, by the songs of Stephen Foster and it features a book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. With music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare, the play relies heavily on dance as a means to weave its tale. It is through the exuberant choreography by modern dance master Bill T. Jones, that “Paradise Square” elucidates the historical, but still sometimes conjectured, connection between Irish step dancing such as Hammerstep and the Jig with the Juba style of dance originating from Enslaved Africans in American plantations. The Anglo dance choreography is by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus.

The musical represents a brilliant artistic collaboration nothing short of dynamic. And, one can only imagine the conversations had among the creative team and cast. My guess is that it was similar to our own collegiate conversation at Routes, which was not without its own impassioned finger wagging and foot-tapping about the origins of tap, and for that matter, its future. So, I decided I would delve into the rich history of a dance form that I love: tap.

The Footprints of Tap

It is important to understand that the footprint of tap dancing is indeed deeply embedded in African-American history and culture. With its highly syncopated rhythms, this percussive dance form has roots in sacred and secular African tribal step dancing. It also should be noted that tap dancing does include elements of English, Scottish, as well as Irish jigs and clog dancing. African step dancing is connected with clog dancing from the British Isles; it created a unique form of rhythm, sound, and movement — an Afro-Irish fusion of “jig and juba,” that evolved into “jigging.” It is believed that tap dancing emerged in the southern United States as early as the 1700s. Slave owners had taken away African drums and other percussive instruments, so the enslaved sought out creative ways to mimic those sounds, consequently turning to percussive dancing as a substitute form of cultural expression.

Tapping in the Turn of the Century

This dance form was given birth by Master Juba. During the late 1800s, Juba was the first and only African-American tapper to tour with a Blackface Minstrelsy group. Tap dancing featured prominently as a major dance niche throughout The Harlem Renaissance (during the 1920s and 1930s). It was also very popular in Vaudeville variety and traveling shows. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, known for his elegant soft shoe footwork, performed on Broadway and starred in 14 Hollywood movies, many of them played opposite child star Shirley Temple. As well, Robinson founded the Negro Actors Guild of America, an organization that advocated for the rights of African-American performers.

During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, tap dancing continued to develop in direct relationship to jazz music. Led by the preeminent Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold. They introduced an acrobatic technique of tap dancing called “flash dancing.” Featured in the 1943 movie, Stormy Weather, their “Jumpin’ Jive” with Cab Calloway and his Orchestra is considered one of the greatest dance routines ever captured on film.

Tap dancing, coupled with jazz music, was further popularized during World War II, by the dynamic team of Charles “Honi” Coles and Charles “Cholly” Atkins who performed in touring road shows with the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway’s big bands.

In 1949, upon the death of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an ensemble of star tap dance artists formed the Original Copasetics—a name derived from Robinson’s familiar saying that “everything is copasetic.” The Copasetics helped to popularize and revive the art of tap dancing as we know it from classic Hollywood films and Broadway musicals and revivals.

Carrying forth the legacy of Robinson and the Nicholas Brother were two other dancing siblings — the Hines Brothers. Maurice and Gregory Hines were a dancing duo very much patterned after the Nicholas Brothers. They can be credited with bridging the connection between great tappers of the past and current dance and musical trends of today. Even more so, they greatly influenced and trained a generation of dancers that would follow.

Though new works like “Paradise Square” serve up a new perspective on the history of tap dancing and more than hints at its relationship to other forms of dance, tap is too often relegated to a bygone era. In order to explore the future of tap and its continued relevance, I sat down for an up close and personal interview with two of today’s modern masters — Omar Edwards and Michela Marino Lerman.

The Brightest Lights On Broadway: Joaquina Kalukango +

In the new Broadway musical, “Paradise Square,” the actress steps into a leading role
by Marshall Heyman

Originating a role in a brand-new Broadway musical like Paradise Square “was a huge dream of mine,” says Joaquina Kalukango, who was Tony-nominated for her performance in Slave Play in 2020. By all accounts, Kalukango blows the roof off the Barrymore Theatre as Nelly O’Brien, the owner of a saloon in Manhattan during the Civil War. “I feel a strong connection with Nelly’s bullshit meter,” Kalukango adds. “She can spot a liar a mile away, and so can I.”

Sidney DuPont, Who Is Deaf in One Ear, Defied the Odds to Lead New Broadway Musical: 'A Miracle' +

Sidney DuPont talks publicly for the first time about his inability to hear in one ear, telling PEOPLE that starring in Broadway's Paradise Square has been a “gift”
by Michael Gioia
April 1, 2022

Broadway actor Sidney DuPont never let anything stand in his way.

As a young boy, DuPont was diagnosed with a cholesteatoma — a skin-lined cyst that invades the middle ear and eats away at the eardrum — and around 5 years old, he began to lose the ability to hear in his left ear.

Though he had multiple surgeries in an attempt to save his hearing, nothing seemed to work. Up until now, DuPont never spoke about his hearing loss as a professional actor for fear that it could be used "against" him.

"My parents never let me look at it as a disability, and I just never saw it as a disability," he tells PEOPLE, adding that he always had a bucket list full of dreams and was determined to one day make it to Broadway.

The actor, 30, stars in Paradise Square, a Civil War-era musical opening Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre that brings together the Black and Irish American communities through song and dance.

"When I was 12 years old, I learned the word trajectory, and I remember writing down a trajectory of what I thought my life would be," he says. "And at one point, I thought I would be married and have kids by now, but I also wrote down my dreams of Broadway and specifically of originating something, of creating something. I had no doubt in my mind that it was gonna happen."

DuPont grew up in Philadelphia. "They were calling it Killadelphia at the time," he says. "They just started the war in Afghanistan, and I remember there were so many deaths in Philadelphia that year.

"Gun violence… That's what I was being raised in. And so there was a lot of internalized fear, and I kind of retreated inside, and I think that music and dancing and theater and acting and storytelling saved me."

Despite being hearing impaired, his parents supported his love for the arts and "made sure that my dreams, that my reality, was open," he adds. "That I never saw Philadelphia as being the only place to be."

One may think that signing in harmony would be DuPont's biggest challenge, however, he says that he was most concerned about his equilibrium as a dancer and the ability to stay in line with rhythms and beats.

At the High School for Creative & Performing Arts in Philadelphia, his teacher Dorina Morrow treated him the same as every other student in the class. "She never, ever, ever let it be a thing for me," he says. "She was like, 'No, I'm grading you exactly the same. You can do this, and I know you can.' And she fought for me to have an internal meter inside of my body at all times, so whether or not the music has shifted, no matter what has happened, there's an internal meter and a confidence that comes with that, that I am controlling the rhythm."

DuPont has been with Paradise Square for over five years, since its early developmental phases including its out-of-town tryout at Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre.

"My mom is always like, 'You're a miracle. You really are,' because I shouldn't be able to do what I'm doing," he says, adding that he hopes to inspire not only the Black and LGBTQ communities by representing them on Broadway, but also those who are deaf or hearing impaired.

Taking the stage nightly has been a "gift," he says. "Nina Simone once did an interview… The question was, 'What's freedom to you. What is free?' And she said, 'What's freedom to me? Freedom is no fear.'

"She was like, 'It is something that very few of us get to have,' but there are times and moments on stage where she has felt free, and at the end of my [11 o'clock] number… It's not in the script — the lyricist did not write this into the show — but right before my last note in that number, I say, 'Tonight, I'm feeling free.' I remember the first night it happened in Chicago, and it wasn't planned, I didn't think, 'Oh, this is what I'm gonna say.' It was actually how I felt in the moment, and it kind of changed everything for me."

He adds, "Stepping into your purpose, and your intentions all aligning at the same time, there's just simply nothing like it. And I hope that people feel that, and I hope that specifically the Black and brown people who come to the show, that they feel that — seen."

Paradise Square is currently playing at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Interview: A.J. Shively Digs Into the History Behind Paradise Square +

Shively co-stars in the new musical at the Barrymore Theatre.
by David Gordon
March 30, 2022

A.J. Shively has seen Paradise Square through a lot of productions. Since its January 2019 tryout run at Berkeley Rep, Shively has honed and develop the role of Owen Duignan, a newly arrived Irish immigrant who has a sneaking suspicion that he's about to get drafted to fight in the Civil War. The musical itself has undergone a lot of changes and honing over the last three years, too, but one thing has stayed the same: it's pretty incredible to watch him take center stage and perform some thrilling Irish step dancing. Here, he tells us how he learned it all, and from scratch, no less.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The subject matter of Paradise Square isn't really discussed — even in basic New York City history, it rarely comes up. As an actor, where do you begin, then, in terms of research?

One of the greatest resources is a book called Five Points by Tyler Anbinder, but one of the hardest parts about putting this show together is that there's no real source material, just the fact that it happened.

I knew a bit about the Irish side of things, because this is how and when and why my family came to America. I knew about the famine and the famine ships. My family members were indentured servants when they came, which isn't touched on in the show, and they wound up in Indiana, so they weren't part of this society. So I really had no idea. But this is why I wanted to become an actor. I've always been a research nerd, and acting is nothing but research projects all the time.

Are you a dancer? Because your step dancing is mighty impressive.

I didn't grow up as a dancer. Tap dancing is the only class I ever got a C in in my life. It was early in the morning and I'm not a morning person, and I was not good at it. I had a bad attitude. But I did grow up doing martial arts, so I had the body awareness. I did not know that I was capable of this level of dancing.

So you learned all this Irish step dancing from scratch? What kind of practice and training did that require from you?

The amount of focus and technique that's required! Our Irish step choreographers are Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus, and they were so helpful in giving me moves that looked good on my body as I started from scratch. They started me off with my feet taping, and as we were setting the choreography out in Berkeley, I saw them goofing off in the corner, figuring out their own stuff, and they did this really cool kick, where they jumped up and bent both legs around each other. And I was like, "Like this?" And they were like "That's a really advanced move" but I didn't know the difference!

The hardest part was growing the little muscles in my calves that stabilize your ankles and let you jump without putting your heels down. You have to have the looseness and tension all that the same time. In Berkeley, I was sore all the time. Thankfully, those muscles have developed enough that it doesn't hurt to just exist anymore.

How has the show and your role developed over time?

I did a workshop before Berkeley, as well, and my audition scene was my character Owen trying to sell his body to Stephen Foster, which is not in the show anymore. Like, "I've seen the way you look at me. I know you need money." That sort of thing. And I was told there might be a moment of Irish dancing. But I never had a dance audition. That's how much it's changed. And characters have been cut, characters have been added. We put in seven new scenes and three new songs between Chicago and New York.

What is it like to do this show now, in light of the events of the last two years?

It's been wild how relevant it remains, and the rolling relevance as the news cycle changes. With the invasion of the Ukraine, thinking about the prospect of any ordinary person going off to fight and what that means is kind of insane.

And the conversation is so much more available after the social justice movement. There's a vocabulary that we were trying to figure out when we were at Berkeley Rep — there weren't really words yet or books on how we talk about these things, and the social justice movement has made it possible for these difficult conversations to happen. It's a touchy subject, it's dense material, and part of the reason the community feels so strong on stage is because we had these difficult conversations in the rehearsal room.

This has been amazing to be part of. It's been very difficult, too, but it's been amazing to see people so good at what they do and succeeding. We love each other, we love the show, we believe in what we're trying to say. It's a really important story and shows that history just keeps repeating itself.

Metrofocus Metrofocus: March 31, 2022 +

by Jack Ford
March 31, 2022

“Tonight, Joaquina Kalukango, who plays the central character, Nelly, owner of the saloon and Chilina Kennedy who plays her Irish-Catholic sister in law take us inside the tavern for a look at the politics and the plight of the play, Paradise Square.

WATCH VIDEO

Paradise Square +

by Abdon Moriarty Pallasch


“This is the most important musical of our times”

Chicago – go see Paradise Square for the best blending of Irish and African-American dance you’ve seen; the most inspiring, stand-up-and-cheer vocals you’ve heard; and a story about a part of American history you’ve never heard.

“What really blows this show out of the park is its knockout dancing, and the brilliant choreography by Bill T. Jones that in many ways is more potent than any spoken dialogue as it sets the phenomenal rhythms and moves of both Irish step dancing and African juba into a brilliant competition that reveals the genius of both ‘languages,’” critic Hedy Weiss wrote for Chicago’s PBS affiliate.

I’m going to give away one of the funniest lines in Paradise Square. But there are so many more reasons why you should go see this work of art when it opens on Broadway in March, it’s hardly a spoiler.

Young Owen Duignan steps off the boat from Ireland to greet his Aunt Annie in New York and she tells him she has married a protestant. Upon seeing his uncle is a Black reverend, Owen exclaims, “Oh he’s THAT kind of protestant!” and gives him a big hug.

Owen’s emotion is one of relief. His aunt has not married one of those heartless British landlords he knows the word “protestant” to mean. She has married a fellow member of the oppressed.

“Owen’s never seen a non-white person – the Irish are not considered ‘white’ by American standards at this point,” A.J. Shively, the Irish-American actor playing Owen, said.

Black 47’s Larry Kirwan’s epic Paradise Square unearths a buried treasure of American history before the Irish became “white,” when the near-penniless Irish joined equally struggling African-American escaped slaves and freeborn-but-still-oppressed Black Americans in the slums of New York’s Five Points during the Civil War.

A century before Archie Bunker was symbolizing small-minded white ignorance and intolerance of Black people, they and the Irish were living, dancing, singing, inter-marrying together in New York, and that gloriously comes alive on stage in Paradise Square with rising star Joaquina Kalukanko’s strong vocals and choreographer Bill T. Jones’ lively blending of Irish and African-American dance.

A post-COVID Broadway reopening

So many years in the making from Kirwan’s original Hard Times show 8½ years ago; to being reworked by three other writers, Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, and Craig Lucas; taking it up to producer Garth Drabinsky in Toronto…” (Drabinsky served a prison sentence for fraud and forgery in Canada but retains his reputation in theater circles as a legendary and sought-after producer) – “So many people have added so much over the years,” Kirwan said; to premiering at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in California in January, 2019, till Covid-19 struck and all of American theater largely shut down for two years.

So with audiences masked up and required to present proof of immunization, Paradise Square is allowing musical theater to come roaring back.

“Audiences are comfortable being in large spaces again,” said Broadway veteran Nathaniel Stampley, who plays Owen’s uncle Rev. Lewis, a conductor on the Underground Railroad. “We’re grateful for the vaccinations. We’ve had a lot of energy and art stored up for 18, 19 months. A lot of that is spilling out on the stage now.”

The critics have raved about the show’s one-month launch in Chicago, which finished in December as the actors and crew packed up and moved the show to Broadway’s Barrymore theater.

“This is the most important musical of our times, drawing from American history to depict the kind of racial harmony we still call aspirational, as well as the path to its destruction,” Brian Hieggelke wrote in Newcity. “If you’re a fan of the kind of big, dumb musicals that too often make bank on Broadway, this is not your show. It’s smart, nuanced and jammed with ideas about race, gender, class, immigration, the neglect of veterans, and just about everything else that ails America. Pretty Woman this is not.”

The musical is “shaped by visually lush, emotionally intricate storytelling largely created through Bill T. Jones’ vivid choreography and Jason Howland’s gripping score,” Catey Sullivan wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times.

“The singing is blockbuster, the dancing is dazzling, and the reckoning that anyone sitting through this fable must undergo is as sobering as it ought to be,” Irene Hsiao wrote in The Chicago Reader.

Some criticism directed at the show say the writers try to tackle too many issues – race relations, immigration, the Underground Railroad, etc.

So critics in search of simplistic, underachieving plays and who have trouble holding more than one plotline in their head at a time might want to skip Paradise Square. (Did they think Lin-Manuel Miranda tried to tackle too many words in Hamilton?)

“Some shows are purely about the sets, the costumes – this is a very human story. Not all musicals are created equal,” Stampley said.

Chicago Theater Review thought the creators and performers of Paradise Square weaved all these converging forces together just fine.

Paradise Square is a magnificent show,” Colin Douglas wrote in the Review. “It’s stuffed with a great deal of historical information, as well as some soul-searching examinations of racial, class and gender equality. Immigration issues feature heavily in the musical’s storyline, along with how America has sadly neglected its sick, downtrodden and veterans of war. This is a musical for audiences who enjoy great music and majestic choreography, but who also prefer a show that makes them think and feel.”

Racism, anti-immigrant bias persist

The villain of the movie, political boss Frederic Tiggens, sees the alliance of Irish and Black people threatening his ability to exploit both groups so he whispers in each group’s ears that the other group is the source of their problems, helping provoke the Draft Riots that will burn the community down and kill the brief-lived “paradise” of racial harmony.

Is it fair that you come back from fighting the Civil War and a Black man has your job? Tiggens asks the Irish Civil War vets. “If I had to pay the coloreds the Irishman wage I’d be ruined,” one of Tiggens’ business-owner supporters laments.

A political opportunist scape-goating immigrants and minorities to advance his career? Could that have any relevance to modern America?

“These things keep repeating themselves over and over and over again, and we are asking ourselves: When will we ever learn?” lamented Irish-Canadian actress Chilina Kennedy, who plays Owen’s Aunt Annie, and who previously played Carole King in Beautiful on Broadway.

““It’s pretty remarkable about how much has changed but how little has changed,” A.J. “Owen” Shively agreed. “I went to Ellis Island when the migrant caravan was the big news story and it was literally, word for word, the same newspaper headlines – just substitute the word ‘Italian.’”

The message comes through in the play, Kirwan said. “It’s always happened. You’ve always had the race-baiting. It just takes someone to do it skillfully. It’s not going away. This will continue as long as you’ve got opportunist politicians who will work it, use it,” Kirwan said.

Story found in old etchings

So where did Kirwan find this story that had been lost to us for so many years?

Kirwan’s grandfather who raised him on a farm in Wexford talked about an old childhood friend who moved to America and never wrote because, his grandfather told him, “He must have gotten lost in The Five Points.”

“I was living on the Lower East Side. I was broke. I was walking distance from ‘The Five Points.’ I spent a lot of time in the second-hand book stores around 3rd Avenue,” Kirwan recalled. “One day I came upon a book with some etchings of scenes of the dance halls in The Five Points. Looking at the faces of the dancers, it was usually an African-American man and an Irish woman. They were clearly in romantic relationships. There was a joy and a delight on the faces of the dancers that beamed across the centuries.”

As a musician, Kirwan already knew that Irish and African-American musicians got together at the dance halls, forming new genres of music from the mixture of the two musical styles, as well as dance. Tap is thought to have originated in The Five Points.

“Usually, you’d have an Irish fiddle-player, an African-American banjo player and percussionist, an Irish singer,” Kirwan said.

He started researching the inter-racial dating in the mid-1800s. The flood of young women coming from Ireland during the famine arrived with little money and little oversight.

“The whole social system had broken down. The priests did not come to America with them. The parents did not come either. They could do what they liked,” Kirwan said. “The best places for the craic were the African-American dance halls. African-American men were gentlemen to them, danced with them. They liked to dance. Before long romance started. There was no one there at home to say ‘No’ to them.”

There was a word for these young lovers crossing racial boundaries: “Amalgamationists.”

“These amalgamationists were despised by the uptown protestants,” Kirwan said. Anti-Catholicism was virulent at the time. And while Black residents of New York were not enslaved, the “uptown protestants” hardly welcomed them as equals.

“When the famine Irish arrived here, African-Americans were already well-established in the Five Points, a few steps up the ladder from the immigrants,” Kirwan said. “African-Americans were the only ones that took the Irish in. The pre-famine Irish were ashamed of the famine Irish. They had worked their way up the ladder. They were becoming ‘white.’ And now thousands and thousands of these diseased people are coming in…”

And so the Irish and African-Americans found each other in the Five Points.

“It makes sense that there would be a blending and mixing of these two cultures,” Nate “Rev. Lewis” Stampley said. “No one would ever say that these two groups of people are shy or timid in any way. That mix is what makes this country really special.”

Intermarriage between Irish-Americans and African-Americans in the Five Points peaked from 1845 to July 13, 1863, the day the Draft Riots started, Kirwan said. Mobs of white people, including Irish, “Burned down the African-American dance halls, and the mixed families scattered to New Jersey and Staten Island and kind of got subsumed into Black culture,” Kirwan said.

As Chris Jones put it in The Chicago Tribune, “Black Americans and Irish immigrants lived, mixed and intermarried so thoroughly and vivaciously as to not only percolate American cultural forms like tap and jazz, but, for a brief but shining moment, to mutually create an idealized image of what this nation could always have been. All before forces terrified of the political power of these two aligned groups decided it must not stand and took paradise down and paved it into a parking lot.”

Can we reclaim Paradise?

Can Paradise Square be our wake-up call to remember we were on a better track 160 years ago and find our way again to racial harmony in the United States?

Looking at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, George Floyd’s murder and the demonization of Americans who marched to honor Floyd, it’s easy to overlook the progress that has been made on race relations in the United States since the 1860s.

In the century and a half since the Draft Riots, Americans have elected and re-elected a Black president born to a white mother with Irish roots and an African immigrant father. New Yorkers have elected two Black mayors and a white mayor married to a Black woman. Chicago is on its third Black mayor, this one a Black woman married to a white woman.

So is any of this even remarkable anymore? Are we living in the paradise that Kirwan’s characters dreamed of?

“We describe our saloon as a little bit of Eden. There are little bits of Eden in all 50 states. There are large portions of us that are living that way now,” Stampley said. “We can create the kind of future we want. We can all strive for something better. I am grateful to be a part of that change. I am doing my part by being in this play.”

“I think it’s kind of the blueprint – a ‘future yet to be,’” Kennedy said. “It’s this kind of perfect… Well, not perfect. It has scars and traumas. But the way that the two cultures blended together and respected each other – that hasn’t quite happened yet in America, or in Canada either.”

“1863 was the worst possible time in U.S. history,” Kirwan said. “People actually owned other people in this country. Don’t tell me nowadays that we’re going through this awful time. If amalgamationism can happen in the midst of all that, we can all reach out to each other and agree to disagree with each other. Hopefully, Paradise Square will help in that fight, bring Irish and African-Americans together.”

Just watching the cast – 18 African-Americans and 18 white actors – interact with each other on and off the stage gives Kirwan hope, he said.

“The Black and white people on the stage are totally at ease with each other and you don’t see that in society much,” Kirwan said. “They all go out afterward together. You don’t see clumps of black people and white people. That’s the culture we’ve created in Paradise Square.”

Kirwan, Kennedy and Shively grew up in very white environments in Wexford; New Brunswick, Canada; and Dublin, Ohio, respectively. Stampley grew up in a Black neighborhood in Milwaukee. They and the other cast members all feel pretty comfortable with each other now, they said.

“It’s hard to get out of your box unless you spend time with other people,” Kennedy said. “We all hang out together all the time. That’s part of what I love about the show – it does bring us together. We have a lot of wine and we sit around and talk. There’s a boldness about the United States that I love. Kind of allows for debates. [In Canada,] it takes a little longer to get there. People are very polite, very careful. It’s more difficult to have intense conversations.”

Stampley has enjoyed the cast’s discussions with Thulani Davis, an African-American playwright, journalist and scholar in residence at Stampley’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who was brought in to serve as the “dramaturg” for the show, providing historical and factural context for the setting.

“We have a community of actors where we are together and there’s a larger political dynamic that was playing out on a national level, licking our wounds of the last 4, 5, 6 years of all the strife, and then, the coronavirus,” Stampley said. “It has made us all very vulnerable, very open to each other’s history and perspective. It’s been a really special time to be together. I look forward to learning a lot more about the Irish-American heritage in this country and how it has influenced so many other things.”

“All it takes is for people to listen to each other,” Shively said. “Last summer (George Floyd) was another moment of all of us, being American, trying to find common language so we can speak to each other. I have hope people are able to be more patient than they’re being right now. You have to have optimism.”

Dancing “like there’s fire on the floor”

Put all the serious subject matter aside for a moment. Paradise Square is a jubilant, joyful musical that celebrates African-American and Irish music and dance and their coming together to form new American music and dance.

The Tribune’s Chris Jones writes, “The show has a star turn from Joaquina Kalukango that will be formidable competition for anyone and everyone come Tony Awards time.”

Kalukango’s climactic “Let it Burn!” repeatedly brings the audience to its feet for standing ovations at an awkward moment when you want to cheer her commanding performance while not appearing to condone the rioters burning down her building.

“It’s hard to cheer and yell with a mask on. But that I did right along with the entire crowd at Paradise Square, as Joaquina Kalukango delivered a shatteringly powerful show-stopper, ‘Let It Burn,’ holding the audience in her thrall for every second,” Bill Esler wrote for Buzznews.

“We’re talking Jennifer-Hudson-in-Dream-Girls caliber, perhaps even better. Really!”

Kalukango was a Tony nominee in 2020 for Slave Play. Watch for the Tonys to notice her and possibly other cast members for their vocals and their dance.

“Bill T. Jones’ choreography is outstanding. This is the kind of dance that wins Tony Awards,” Rachel Weinberg writes for Broadway World. “It’s beautiful. In Jones’s choreography, Paradise Square’s blend of different cultural influences finds its seamless match. The choreography is fantastic, and the ensemble dance numbers are breathtaking.”

Owen shows off his Irish dancing as Washington Henry, played by Sidney DuPont, struts his African juba. That swings back and forth from competition to collaboration back to competition. They respect each other. They learn from each other. They compete with each other.

“Both can dance like there’s a fire on the floor – Owen with the sprightly, high-stepping patterns of the Irish, Washington Henry with the grounded stomp, slap, and roll of African American juba,” Irene Hsiao wrote in The Chicago Reader.

“There is some ridiculous Irish dancing in this – not from myself, but from the world championship Irish dancers. There is some great music and rhythm,” Shively said, greatly under-selling his abilities and praising the coaching from choreographers Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus. Shively is paired up with more practiced Irish dancers for many of the acts.

It’s not Tom Cruise in Far and Away

Irish fans can be pretty particular about American actors attempting Irish accents. So how do these Yanks (and Canadians) do? Well, Shively and Kennedy admit they don’t sound like Liam Neeson and Saoirse Ronan, but they and their fellow cast members make it clear they practiced, listened to their dialect coaches, put their hearts into it and they pull off a respectable effort.

Kennedy said she tries not to slip into the Newfoundland/Nova Scotia/Prince Edward Island accents she grew up around.

Growing up in the Irish-named town of Dublin, Ohio, which boasts one of the largest Irish festivals in America but is not home to many Irish immigrants, Shively said, “The accent is not in my ear. You could hear the music. The first concert I ever went to was the Cranberries. With any accent, it’s not the vowel shapes and sounds, it’s the music of it, thinking why a culture speaks in a certain way.”

Shively watched the scene in the movie Brooklyn in which Saoirse Ronan’s character serving dinner in a church basement hears Iarla Ó Lionáird singing a traditional Sean-nós song in Irish.

“That music resonated in my DNA – I could feel it in the center of my being,” Shively said. “I listen to as much of it as I can, I took lessons at the Irish Arts Center of New York.” He studied the Irish language to get the sounds. The effort shows in his singing, his dancing, his anguish about the threat to draft Owen so soon after he’s arrived from Ireland.

An imperfect “father” of American music

Stephen Foster, called by some “the father of American music,” makes more than a cameo appearance in this play.

Owen and Washington repurpose some of his best-known songs like “Camptown Races” for their dancing duels.

The African-Americans take him to task for appropriating their voices, the songs they used to endure their hellish slave labor, and making them happy sing-song numbers, as though being enslaved could ever be happy.

Foster really did hang out in the African-American dance halls in those times because he knew that was where innovation in music was going on, Kirwan said.

Foster’s early hits like “Camptown Races” and “Oh, Susanna” “were steeped in race-baiting minstrelsy,” Kirwan said. “He abandoned this genre, thus beggaring himself, but will always be tainted by his brush with the Peculiar Institution [slavery] though infinitely less so than slave-owning presidents like Washington and Jefferson. He did seek to create a ‘new American music,’ fueled by immigrant sensibilities and was on track to doing so with such compositions as “Beautiful Dreamer” before he died penniless at the age of 37, six months after the Draft Riots of 1863.”

Foster’s role was bigger in earlier versions of the play. Some critics cite Foster’s appearance as one of the complicating sub-plots they would like to see removed from Paradise Square to simplify the play.

I hope that doesn’t happen.

Foster really was there in the African-American dance halls of The Five Points, for better or worse, and he remains an important part of the story. The music and melodies he heard there he made, WE made, part of American culture, for better or worse.

“Something for everyone”

“Before its scheduled March opening on Broadway, Paradise Square has a bit of revising to do. A very small bit,” Catey Sullivan wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Can the plots of most plays do with a bit of tightening and polishing? Sure. Hell, this article may be tightened and polished by the editors before it runs in Irish America magazine.

But I hope most of the complications that make Paradise Square so compelling stay in the show.

Critics from privileged backgrounds who grew up as single children in the suburbs in ordered households with stay-at-home Moms who had time to tidy the houses and fold napkins before dinner may have trouble following all the complicated forces threatening this community.

But if you grew up in rough-and-tumble Irish or African-American homes with siblings, cousins, dancing, drinking and chaos, you’ll have no problem following Paradise Square.

I brought my wife, two of my sons and my impossible-to-please younger teen daughter to see Paradise Square and they were all blown away by it. The awesome singing and dancing alone might have been enough, but the storyline that is so inspiring and exasperating all at once seals the deal.

“I think Paradise Square has a little bit of something for everyone,” Stampley said. “The dancing and singing is incredible. You are going to get upset. You are going to cry.”

Joaquina Kalukango Isn’t Afraid to Speak Up Anymore +

Before leading her first Broadway musical in “Paradise Square,” she had long deferred to others in the rehearsal room — until she realized how much she has to share.

by Julia Jacobs
February 25, 2022

When Joaquina Kalukango was done with “Slave Play,” she was done with “Slave Play.”

After four months in the show, Kalukango had to close the book on her character, Kaneisha, a Black woman desperately trying to find sexual satisfaction with her white husband by role-playing as an enslaved person and an overseer. Eight times a week, she inhabited a character who contends with psychological, sexual, generational and physical trauma, all in a two-hour span.

“How do you do that without your soul falling apart?” Kalukango said in a recent interview. “You have to figure that out.”

So she made a clean break, ceasing all psychoanalysis of Kaneisha and taking onscreen parts, including as Betty Shabazz in “One Night in Miami.”

Now, after two years away from Broadway as it weathered the pandemic, Kalukango is stepping into a radically different role: as the lead actress in the big-budget, large-ensemble musical, “Paradise Square.” She plays Nelly O’Brien, a woman whose father escaped slavery and who now runs a bar in the Five Points neighborhood of Civil War-era Manhattan; her tight-knit community of Black Americans and Irish immigrants unravels in the days leading up to the 1863 Draft Riots, when white working-class New Yorkers formed violent racist mobs following a draft lottery.

The show, which starts previews at the Barrymore Theater on March 15 after a five-week run in Chicago in the fall, is Kalukango’s first top billing in a Broadway musical.

“She was making steps toward this leading-lady position, and she’s finally there,” said Danielle Brooks, an actress who has been close friends with Kalukango since they studied at Juilliard together.

“I think she’s ready to walk into this just how Audra did and just how LaChanze did,” she added, comparing her to Audra McDonald and to the “Trouble in Mind” star.

But this new chapter is about much more than how the industry perceives Kalukango, whose performance as Kaneisha earned her a Tony nomination and a reputation for a magnetic star quality, as the director of “Paradise Square,” Moisés Kaufman, put it.

“It’s about owning my power, trusting who I am, trusting that my opinions about my character are valid,” Kalukango said. (Kalukango landed “Paradise Square” without an audition: In an early Zoom meeting with Kaufman, he said, “I don’t need you to read anything. I know that you can do this.”)

Until recently, Kalukango, 33, would have described herself as a reserved listener, an actress who tended to defer to the authority in the room. In the past, if she had a qualm in a rehearsal about a character or a scene, she would let it be, then end up feeling awkward and foolish onstage. It wasn’t until she saw other Black actresses speaking up in rehearsals — such as Tonya Pinkins in “Hurt Village” — that she began to start building the confidence to do the same. Then came age, experience and a pandemic that filled her with a sense of urgency.

“Once that pandemic hit, it was like, this is life or death, people,” she said. “You can’t sit up here and be in a shell anymore. You have to take ownership of your craft, ownership of your art, ownership of who you are as a person.”

Kalukango was born in Atlanta, the youngest child of Angolan parents who had immigrated to the United States after escaping civil war. Her three siblings were all much older; she remembers being too young to participate in the animated conversations about politics at the dinner table — one place where she grew accustomed to observing from the background.

As a child, Kalukango’s experiences performing were mostly limited to impersonating Whitney Houston and Aaliyah at home on her family’s karaoke machine. It wasn’t until after a middle school talent show that a counselor suggested she audition for a performing arts high school.

That trajectory led her to Juilliard, where Brooks and Kalukango remember the frustrations of being the only Black women in their acting classes, with few Black instructors. They were frequently mistaken for each other at auditions, Brooks remembered, and Kalukango felt some instructors did not have the faculties to advise her on how to incorporate her race and background into her characters.

“Some teachers weren’t able to communicate what it meant for me to play a character — to play Hedda Gabler as a Black woman,” she recalled. “Could I interpret anything of myself in this character? Or is my color completely gone from this — my culture gone from this?”

“They weren’t having those conversations,” she continued. “And so I felt unseen.”

After college, Kalukango had a brief stint as a swing in the 2011 Off Broadway revival of “Rent,” then had her Broadway debut as an understudy in “Godspell.” She went on to join the ensemble in “Holler if Ya Hear Me,” a musical inspired by Tupac Shakur’s music, then took on larger parts as the rival to Sutton Foster’s character in “The Wild Party” and as Nettie, the sister to Cynthia Erivo’s Celie, in the 2015 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple.”

She became pregnant during the run of “The Color Purple,” staying with the production until a month before she was due. Onstage, she learned to throw herself to the ground in a doctor-approved way, and backstage she wore a surgical mask to protect herself and the baby from viruses. When her son was born, she thought to herself, “I can’t hold back anymore. This is for him.”

After Kalukango found out in 2018 that her father had cancer, she and her son moved back to Atlanta from New Jersey. She decided to stay there after her father died, traveling with her son and her mother for jobs, including to Chicago for “Paradise Square” and now to New York for its Broadway opening.

Kalukango’s character wasn’t always the lead; in earlier scripts, Nelly was one figure in an assemblage of Five Points inhabitants, including a formerly enslaved man escaping to Canada and an immigrant who just stepped off the boat from Ireland. The show itself has been in development for nine years. In 2013, Garth Drabinsky, the lead producer, first heard music from “Hard Times” — ​​a musical conceived by Larry Kirwan, the lead singer of the Celtic rock band Black 47, which largely revolved around the songs of the 19th-century American songwriter Stephen Foster, who spent time in Five Points toward the end of his life.

Drabinsky saw the choreographic potential, the multilayered socioeconomic dynamics of the neighborhood and the sense that the story was not particularly well known to audiences.

As the producer brought on writers to develop the musical for Broadway, the show moved further and further away from Foster and his music — especially after the production reckoned fully with Foster’s contributions to American minstrelsy.

It wasn’t until after “Paradise Square” was performed at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2019 that the writers identified the show’s heroine in Nelly, who is waiting for her husband, an Irish immigrant fighting in the Civil War, to come home.

“What became clear is that you need to know who you are rooting for and who you’re hopeful about,” said Jason Howland, the show’s composer and music supervisor. “Ultimately, that’s Joaquina’s character.”

Nelly’s presence in the show grew even larger after the production in Chicago, where audiences reliably gave a standing ovation when Kalukango sang “Let It Burn,” a climax in the second act in which she unleashes her powerful voice, said Masi Asare, who wrote the show’s lyrics with Nathan Tysen.

“Every time she comes onstage she energizes the whole thing,” Asare said.

“Paradise Square” bursts with action and movement — from the rough-and-tumble of Nelly’s bar, to the scenes of violent protest as Irish immigrants mobilize against the draft, to lively ensemble dance numbers that blend Irish step dancing with Juba and the beginnings of tap (the choreography is by Bill T. Jones). In between the action, there are the quieter scenes of sinister politicking as an uptown party boss seeks to undercut Nelly’s influence in her community and turn Irish residents against abolition.

To prepare, Kalukango read seven books about Five Points and Black society in 19th-century New York. Knowing the history helped her shed her reserve in the rehearsal room and assert herself when she was moved to, she said.

In one scene, in which Nelly discovers another character has a bounty on his head for killing his former master, Kalukango sensed there was something off.

“The windows are open, people are outside walking in the street, and we’re literally having a conversation, holding a ‘Wanted’ poster up,” Kalukango said. “At any point in time, if someone saw this, we all would be arrested or, worse, killed.”

After she raised that concern to Kaufman, the stage directions were changed to make the conversation more discreet.

When she doubts herself, Kalukango often thinks back to advice she received while doing “Slave Play” — something the intimacy coordinator said to the cast during a rehearsal.

“She told us ‘no’ is a full sentence,” Kalukango said. “I think that was revelatory for so many of us.”

She had trained for over a decade in an industry where teachers explained how to walk, talk and even how to breathe. There was a sense that, as actors, they were just lucky to have a job — so the answer should always be “yes.”

“Actors, I feel like, in recent times, have a real ownership,” she went on. “We’re the ones onstage doing this eight times a week. And nobody knows your character better than you.”

Although Kalukango tries not to think much about “Slave Play,” she does note some similarities between Kaneisha and Nelly: Both are Black women married to white men (one British, the other Irish). Both are, in their own ways, grappling with affects of centuries of racism on their lives.

And yet the characters’ psychologies are sharply different. In a turn of irony, Kaneisha, a famous writer who lives in the present day, is “still mentally enslaved and is bonded by her history,” Kalukango said. And Nelly, who was disenfranchised and lived in a time of slavery, somehow manages to make her spirit free.

“She feels limitless to me,” she said.

In 'Paradise Square,' a glimpse of racial harmony +

A new Broadway musical uses the power of dance to tell the story of a lively, integrated community in mid-19th century New York.

by Iris Fanger
January 17, 2022

As soon as the overture to the new musical “Paradise Square” started up, the audience began cheering. It was the first show with live actors onstage at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre in nearly two years.

I was in Chicago where the show was having its tryout run in November, ahead of its expected late-February opening on Broadway.

“Paradise Square,” with a new book and score, will be a rarity this season. It’s an original musical – not a stage version of an existing movie property, like “Aladdin,” nor a jukebox musical based on a singer’s work such as “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”

I was especially excited to see the work of lead choreographer Bill T. Jones, a Tony-winning veteran of two Broadway shows, as well as the director of a contemporary dance company. I was intrigued by the big intentions of the musical: lots of spectacle, a large cast, and the promise of a good story. What I did not expect, as I watched the Civil War saga unfold, was the relevance of the subject matter, despite reaching back more than 150 years in American history.

The musical, set in 1863 in the gritty Five Points area of New York, follows the fortunes of two groups – a community of free Black people and an enclave of Irish immigrants. The people work alongside each other, gather at the Paradise Square saloon, and occasionally intermarry. These marriages across racial lines are only two components in a complicated plot that involves abolitionists, a newly arrived Irish immigrant, and a man who had escaped from slavery.

To grasp more of the history behind “Paradise Square,” I spoke by phone with director Moisés Kaufman and associate choreographer Gelan Lambert. I was also able to connect by email with Joaquina Kalukango, who plays the central character, Nelly, owner of the saloon.

“One of the most beautiful things about this story is that, way before we think of it, Americans had tried to come together,” Mr. Kaufman says. “It was the precursor of our desire to live in a community.”

The interwoven plotlines are brought to life by a splendid cast of 38 performers who showcase dance from both African and Irish traditions. “The dancing helps tell the story,” Mr. Kaufman says.

The choreography of Mr. Jones involves a fusion of cultural inspirations – from the rituals that enslaved Africans brought to America to Irish step dancing.

Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus play the lead Irish roles and created the Irish dancing on stage. We see the two groups gradually borrow from each other: the Irish performers bend and thrust their bodies in freer movements; the Black dancers find ways to vary their footwork from stomping to quicker, lighter stepping – a vibrant integration of different rhythms and a melding of one tradition into another that ultimately would lead to the new American form called tap.

“The people who came [to America] were seeing the dances of the others they met,” says Mr. Lambert. “I do believe they appropriated styles and they shared by watching and looking. ‘Appropriation’ means taking something and making it your own,” he adds. A dance-off, in which an escaped enslaved man and a young Irish immigrant compete to win a large sum of money, is a highlight of “Paradise Square.”

But beyond the roistering and friendly competition at Nelly’s tavern, a storm is brewing. A white politician views Nelly’s establishment as the place where white and Black people can come together and he sets out to destroy it, in fear of the combined power of the two groups. “The African Americans and the Irish immigrants were considered dirt by the upper classes,” observes Mr. Kaufman, the director.

The wily politician successfully exploits the frustration and anger of a returning soldier, an Irish immigrant who can’t find work, by convincing him that free Black men have taken his job. This conflict, set against the background of city-wide protests against a draft order by President Abraham Lincoln, touches off riots in Five Points.

The parallels to our own time could not be clearer, despite being clothed in colorful period costumes and scenery. The musical underscores the point that, as in mid-19th century New York, the issues of racial injustice, class conflict, the plight of immigrants, and the struggle for equality continue to roil society. Like the blockbuster “Hamilton,” it reaches back into history to illuminate key areas where America has fallen short of its promise.

The music was composed by Jason Howland, with additions to the score by Larry Kirwan, the originator of the work, which began its life as the 2012 musical “Hard Times.” Mr. Howland incorporates elements of Civil War-era tunes by Stephen Foster such as “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races,” along with Irish dance music, patriotic anthems, and soaring power ballads. Foster, who lived for a time in Five Points, is also a character in the show.

The two outstanding numbers are the dance competition and Nelly’s song after the riots are over, the scorching “Let It Burn” (sung by the powerfully voiced and expressive Ms. Kalukango). I found “Paradise Square” to be an enthralling spectacle of American history. Some reviewers suggested that the musical needs more work to sort out its cat’s cradle of plotlines. I agree, but I still think the show is a winner, in the manner of “Ragtime,” another period musical that was characterized by an uprising in the face of inequality and prejudice.

Whatever changes may occur to the musical in its transfer to Broadway, one thing that won’t be diminished is the energy and urgency of its performances, especially that of Ms. Kalukango. Her Nelly is the moral and emotional center around which “Paradise Square” revolves. I asked her via email if there’s a happy ending to her character’s story.

“Happy would not be the word I would use,” she wrote in reply. “What I will say is that her future is full of possibilities. Nelly is not the type to be defeated for too long, so the end is a reset for her. To start anew with a new dream.”

Iris Fanger is an arts journalist who writes on dance and theater.“Paradise Square” is expected to begin previews at the Barrymore Theatre in New York on March 15 and is slated to open on April 3. Tickets are on sale through Nov. 27, 2022.

Broadway's Next Leading Lady +

Joaquina Kalukango is about to give a performance you’ll never forget.

by Naveen Kumar

“She’s a firecracker,” Joaquina Kalukango says of Nelly O’Brien, the character she plays in Paradise Square, a new Civil War–era musical bowing on Broadway this month. “She’s able to see people’s true hearts.”

Nelly is a free Black woman and New York City bar owner who presides over the collision of Black and Irish-American cultures—and the birth of tap dance—in the notorious lower Manhattan neighborhood that was then known as the Five Points. “This is a story about people who manage to overcome their differences and create something beautiful in the face of fear and danger,” Kalukango says.

If Nelly has a magnetism that draws people into her orbit, so does Kalukango. The 32-year-old has appeared on screens big and small, including in Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. But Kalukango, a Tony nominee for her performance in Slave Play, thrives on the collective energy of standing up in front of a crowd. “Theater is like being in the playoffs every night. It’s always changing based on who comes into the space,” she says. “You never know what’s going to happen.” (Crowds, it seems, love her back. A Chicago Tribune review of Paradise’s run in Chicago gushed, “Kalukango will be formidable competition for anyone and everyone come Tony Awards time.”)

Audiences can expect pulse-pounding choreography by Bill T. Jones to power Paradise Square, which is directed by Moisés Kaufman and shepherded by megaproducer Garth Drabinsky.

Creating a role in a new musical, which can mean making changes until just days before opening, has been uncharted but thrilling territory, Kalukango says. The Atlanta native was discovered after what she calls a terrible number in a middle school talent show, when a teacher suggested she study performing arts. “I think she thought it was a joke,” recalls Kalukango, who went on to graduate from Juilliard.

Kalukango’s return to the New York stage will mark a homecoming, one she knows will be especially emotional. “It’s going to hit me pretty hard,” she says. “I’m a crybaby.” At least some of those tears will be joyful, as she reunites with other artists and friends premiering on Broadway this season. There’s also the poignancy of telling a story that meets a difficult moment.

“I hope Paradise Square asks people to stand up in the face of injustice,” Kalukango says. “I hope it makes people more courageous.”

Joaquina Kalukango and Amanda Williams on Creative Freedom +

The ‘Slave Play’ actress and the Chicago-based artist discuss generational gaps, success and the art that brought them each acclaim.

by Nneka McGuire
November 29, 2021

What does it mean for an artist to be free? And what does that freedom look like for a contemporary Black artist? Amanda Williams has recently been asking herself these very questions. A Chicago-based visual artist who trained as an architect, Williams, 47, is known for her pieces exploring the nuances of color, both racial and aesthetic. Her breakout work was “Color(ed) Theory,” a 2014-16 series in which she painted eight condemned houses on Chicago’s South Side in vivid, culturally coded shades, such as “Ultrasheen,” a dark turquoise that matches the hue of a Black hair-care product, and “Crown Royal Bag,” a purplish pigment that mirrors the packaging of a popular whisky.

In a 2018 TED Talk, Williams discussed how we perceive color — specifically, how our perceptions are determined by context. One example, she said, was redlining — federal housing maps from the 1930s marked neighborhoods inhabited by Black Chicagoans as red, contributing to policies that prevented many residents from securing loans — which weaponized color and resulted in underinvestment. When the actress Joaquina Kalukango, 32, heard the speech, she was awe-struck. Kalukango is no stranger to powerful works of art: Last year, she received a Tony nomination for best leading actress in a play for her work in Jeremy O. Harris’s searing, passionately debated drama “Slave Play,” which is set on a plantation and follows a trio of modern-day interracial couples whose relationships are stymied by conflicting views on race.

One rainy morning in October, Kalukango met Williams at the latter’s studio in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Kalukango was days away from starting a Chicago run of “Paradise Square,” a musical about the 1863 Manhattan draft riots, in which Irish immigrants turned on the Black neighbors with whom they’d previously peacefully coexisted. (It’s headed to Broadway early next year.) Meanwhile, Williams is expanding on “What Black Is This, You Say?,” an ongoing, multiplatform series of abstract paintings inspired by cultural touchstones and observations related to the Black experience that she showed at Art Basel in Miami Beach this month.

Amid laughter, Williams and Kalukango talked generational differences, the desire to be “regular” and the blurry line between artistic genius and madness.

AMANDA WILLIAMS: Twenty twenty was a mess. I was contemplating Kool-Aid [the subject of one of her latest paintings] and laughing about it, and then the whole world was like, “How are you feeling about being Black, segregation and systemic racism?” People were like, “I want to help, right this minute.” I thought, “I don’t know how I feel right now. I was actually doing something else, and now I’m going to cry.” It’s a little easier now. We’re farther away from it. How did that feel for you?

JOAQUINA KALUKANGO: It’s interesting, because “Slave Play” opened [on Broadway in October 2019] before the country had its racial awakening. There was a lot of aggression toward our production. There was a lot of pushback, specifically within the Black community. [Some who had seen the play, and many others who hadn’t, found it offensive in its use of antebellum role play and inappropriately sexually graphic; one online petition calling for the show’s shutdown referred to it as “anti-Black sentiment disguised as art.”] But after audiences saw the show, there was so much conversation. On the streets, people would come up to me and talk about it. That was affirming. It was also exhausting. The greatest thing that helped me was when we had a “Black Out” night — the audience was all Black. I heard the show in a different way: It was funny. There was this release of Black people finally being able to feel like this show was for them, as opposed to sitting next to someone and wondering, “Why are you laughing at this?” How can we get Black people to feel free regardless of who’s sitting next to them? How can we fully enjoy ourselves in situations and experience art without feeling like other people are watching us? It’s always a struggle.

A.W.: I’ve thought a lot about the freedom question. Take Kanye West. He’s obviously experiencing some mental health issues. But also, he has a level of mastery and talent that borders on complete freedom. He says inappropriate things, and maybe he doesn’t even understand what freedom is. But if you’ve ascended beyond practically any other brown human you’ve ever met, and you can buy Wyoming, isn’t that free? [West has purchased two huge ranches there.] He just does what he wants. [For the listening party for “Donda,” his recent album named after his mother, who died in 2007,] Kanye was like, “I’m going to recreate my mom’s house in [the Chicago Bears stadium] Soldier Field.” Everybody was confused. But I thought, “This could be a mental moment, but it’s also pure creativity.” Every artist who you might say is the most free, in terms of pushing their craft to the edge, is always called crazy.

J.K.: Did anyone tell you, early in your career, that you had to work within certain boundaries? Did you feel pressure to be a certain type of artist?

A.W.: I trained as an architect [at Cornell University]. My parents were in a panic that I might be an artist. They were like, “Artists who make money are called architects.” In a sense, that was a boundary. Then, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area right at the height of the dot-com boom. The economy was great. Projects were bountiful; jobs were plentiful. I was able to live out this architectural career that I thought would take 30 years in five or six. Then I had a boss who said, “If you could be doing anything in the world right now, what would it be?” She thought I was going to say, “Taking over your company.” And I said, “Painting.” She encouraged me to try it. And the Bay Area lent itself to that. Everybody had an idea. Google was born when I lived in the Bay. That kind of environment helped me take the leap.

If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t. I’d be like, “What if it doesn’t work? How am I going to eat?” But back then, I was just like, “Oh, I’ll eat some avocados, it’s California.” There’s no moment I remember when somebody said I couldn’t do it. Well, I’m sure there was, but I blocked it out. My friend and I were just talking about how our generation tended to dismiss racist comments or sexual advances. We just kept moving. Your generation does not tolerate nonsense. Is that how it feels?

J.K.: Definitely. The new show I’m in, “Paradise Square,” is a musical that has been in development for a long time. There was always a struggle to figure out whose lens the story should be told through. Now, it finally centers around this free Black woman in New York who owned a bar in 1863 [Nelly Freeman, the role Kalukango is playing]. We have an E.D.I. [equity, diversity and inclusion] person who talks about terminology. One day in rehearsal, an assistant said, “Joaquina, we’re not going to say the L-word in this sentence.” I was like, “ ‘Let’? ‘Listen’? ”

A.W.: Which “L”?

J.K.: It was “lynch.” I said, “What? We’re just not going to say this?” But the idea was, we don’t have to say that word until it’s absolutely necessary. I thought, “Well, this is a whole new way of being, even for me. That word doesn’t bother my spirit, but it’s bothering other people’s spirits.” It’s a different world from when I was growing up in Atlanta.

A.W.: How does that impact your craft? Does it trip you up to have to be mindful of words in a way that maybe you hadn’t been before?

J.K.: We’re all more careful. Everyone’s fragile. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, and so many issues have come up for so many people. We’re all giving each other a lot of care and grace in this new era that we’re trying to build, this new era of theater we’re trying to make. But it’s a bit of a struggle, I’ll be honest. When you do work that’s specifically about a very troublesome time — and if you look at the Jan. 6 riot [at the U.S. Capitol], it’s similar to the draft riots — you can’t sugarcoat it. You can’t run away from it. It’s always a balance of, how do you tell a story without traumatizing our community?

T: When did you first encounter each other’s work?

J.K.: I first saw Amanda’s work in her TED Talk.

A.W.: Oh my God. I had wondered, how did you find out about me? How do you know who I am?

J.K.: I had such a visceral reaction to “Color(ed) Theory.” All of it was so much a part of my life, my childhood. Plus, I just love colors. How did you get that concept? What inspired you?

A.W.: I grew up on Chicago’s South Side and crossed town every day to go to school. Chicago segregation, coupled with the city’s grid, is perfect for systemic oppression because it sets boundaries, and then we mentally reinforce them. I was hyperaware of color all the time, as in race, thinking, “That’s a Mexican neighborhood.” “Chinese people are there.” “White folks do this.” Things like that. And I’ve loved [chromatic] color since birth. Then I learned about color in an academic setting.

One summer, while [I was] teaching color theory, a friend joked, “They pay you money to teach people what? Red and blue is green?” I said, “No, color theory is a whole science.” She said, “You know colored theory.” We laughed and I left it alone. A week or two later, I thought, “I do know colored theory.” I spent another few years making sense of it. It seemed so juicy. I started to think, “What things make you think of the color first?” There’s a story I told in the TED Talk: I met a gentleman who grew up near the “Crown Royal Bag” house. He thought the purple house meant Prince was coming. Even after I told him about my art, he said, “You wait and see. Prince might show up and perform right here.” Suddenly, he had hope for that vacant lot, in a way that maybe he didn’t before. To me, that was success.

J.K.: It was brilliant.

A.W.: At first, I wasn’t as familiar with your work, but when I started to look into it, I was like, “How could I have missed all of this? These are the exact same things I’m thinking and talking about.” I’m excited about how we translate these thoughts across mediums — theater, performance, music, architecture, sculpture, writing.

T: You both have long been working artists, but your breakout pieces — “Slave Play” and “Color(ed) Theory” — made you famous. Has that affected your work? Do you feel an added responsibility now?

J.K.: An actor starts off auditioning for nearly everything. We’re told “no” 99 out of 100 times. Initially, the roles I took were just what ended up coming to me. But I also believe that what’s for you is for you. When you’re on a path that you’re aligned with, more things start coming your way. Now I am adamant that Black women see many facets of ourselves, that we are depicted with a wide gamut of emotions: the unflattering and unraveling parts but also joyful and loving, peaceful and gentle. I want it all for us, at every possible moment. I’m trying to ensure I show Black women as full human beings — not stereotypes, not archetypes. We’re not strong all the time. Yes, our ancestors had to survive, but there was always joy in the midst of all that pain.

A.W.: You also have to give yourself permission to be an artist. That’s hard because there is a burden. You know how few people have the same opportunities, so you always want to make sure you’ve done justice. At the same time, you have to take the pressure off. Our society thinks about the home run, the slam dunk — the idea that each thing you do must be better than the last. But if you look at any creative being’s full oeuvre, there are ups and downs. Artists have to continue to understand themselves and improve their craft for themselves. It makes me think of this great artist Raymond Saunders, who lives in the Bay Area. He taught an advanced painting class, and I was teaching at the same school, so he invited me to his class. I went — and the students were eating handmade pastries from this beautiful boutique in Berkeley or something. I’m like, “What is this?” And they’re like, “He told us he can’t teach us how to paint, he can teach us how to live.” It was mind-blowing. Maybe we don’t have to nail it every single week of every year. Maybe we just nail it every five years. Maybe we can sleep one of those years.

J.K.: I always think, “Do we ever have the space to be mediocre and figure things out?” I don’t want to be Black girl magic every day. Sometimes I want to be regular. Just regular Black. [All laugh]

A.W.: Regular Black. I’m going to make a painting based on that.

A.W.: Just being the best me. I don’t worry so much if my work is well received or if it garners accolades. That sounds so cheesy. My husband jokes, “Well, that’s nice to say after you’ve gotten the accolades.” [All laugh]

J.K.: I love originating and creating new roles. For me, success is knowing that there are girls coming up who can use work I’ve done as audition pieces for colleges. In “Slave Play,” my character, Kaneisha, has a 10- or 15-minute monologue. She takes up space for almost the entire last act. I’d never seen anything like it onstage before. For a long time, it was hard to find material or scene work that included multiple Black characters. It was hard finding those plays [when I studied at the Juilliard School]. It’s all about the next generation for me. If at any point I can make someone feel more free, more confident in their abilities, that’s the win.

A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 5, 2021, Page 60 of T Magazine with the headline: Joaquina Kalukango and Amanda Williams.

Theater to See This Season After a Very Long Intermission +

by Steven McElroy
September 17, 2021

Jacobi Hall, center, in “Paradise Square.” The musical arrives on Broadway next spring, directed by Moisés Kaufman and choreographed by Bill T. Jones. Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

PARADISE SQUARE
I caught this production, which had its premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theater, while passing through the area in January 2019. The musical, about freeborn Black people and newly arrived Irish immigrants coexisting peacefully, for a time, in Five Points, a New York slum, during the Civil War, focuses on a fascinating American story. It seemed Broadway bound when I saw it, and the moment will soon arrive: Following another pre-Broadway run at the James M. Nederlander Theater in Chicago (Nov. 2-Dec. 5), “Paradise” will arrive in New York in the spring. Moisés Kaufman directs the show, with a book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan; music and lyrics by Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare; and choreography by Bill T. Jones. (Previews begin Feb. 22; opens March 20, Barrymore Theater)

READ MORE

Anthemic New Song For Broadway-Bound ‘Paradise Square’ Says ‘Breathe Easy’: Watch First Look +

by Greg Evans
September 17, 2021

EXCLUSIVE: Paradise Square, the new Broadway-bound musical from producer Garth H. Drabinsky set during the history-making New York Draft Riots of the 1860s, will arrive at the Barrymore Theatre in February with several news songs added since its 2019 West Coast incarnation, including an anthemic new musical number that can’t help but summon thoughts of the galvanizing response to recent racial discord: The new number is called “Breathe Easy.”

In this new music video, debuting on Deadline, listeners can hear what Broadway audiences have in store.

The musical features a book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, and a score by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen, with additional material provided by Masi Asare and Kirwan. The new song was written by Howland (music) and Tysen & Asare (lyrics).

In the video, recorded at New York City’s Seer Sound, the number – which includes lines like “In your breath is freedom” and “no eyes in the back of our heads/soon we won’t need ’em” – is performed by the musical’s Gabrielle McClinton (Pippin) and Sidney DuPont (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), with Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Jacobi Hall, Kayla Pecchioni, Lee Siegel, Jay McKenzie, Chloe Davis, Alan Wiggins and Hailee Kaleem Wright.

“The first time I heard it, I was immediately taken aback,” said DuPont, who will play Washington Henry in the musical. “Oftentimes we underestimate how much the pressures of life weigh on your shoulders and with ‘Breathe Easy,’ it reminds me that everything is going to be OK if you take a breath. If you really solidify yourself, you can get through just about anything. And I think that in the show, especially when that song comes, I don’t think there will be a dry eye in the house. I think everyone will feel it.”

McClinton, who will play a slave named Angelina Baker, describes ‘Breathe Easy’ as “freeing to sing.”

“And I think it doesn’t just fit into this show, it really fits into the world,” she said. “It literally says breathe easy. And I think especially after the past year and a half we’ve all had, we can remind ourselves to breathe easy. And I think for Angelina being a slave and being on this torturous journey, it’s her mantra.”

Composer Howland handled the recording’s musical and vocal arrangements, and musical direction and orchestrations. The recording was produced by Howland and Billy Stein.

Paradise Square is set in New York City’s Five Points neighborhood of 1863, and chronicles the raucous dance contests between the area’s Irish and Black communities, and the racial equilibrium that came to a brutal end with the deadly NY Draft Riots. Moisés Kaufman will direct, and Bill T. Jones is the choreographer. Graciela Daniele will provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The Broadway production has also drawn considerable attention as the comeback vehicle for executive producer Garth H. Drabinsky, the once ubiquitous Canadian theater producer whose legal and financial transgressions resulted in a prison sentence in Canada. At his peak in the 1990s, Drabinsky produced such Broadway hits as Kiss of the Spider Woman, Show Boat, Ragtime and Fosse. For Paradise Square, Drabinsky will team with longtime colleague Peter LeDonne, who co-produces.

Paradise Square will begin Broadway previews at the Shubert Organization’s Barrymore Theatre on February 22, 2022, with an opening night set for Sunday, March 20.

CHECK OUT THE NEW SONG

2021–22 Season Preview: The Shows We Can't Wait to See +

by Madeline Schrock
August 30, 2021

Paradise Square illuminates a little-known pocket of American history: As the country was divided by the Civil War, free-born Black Americans, escaped enslaved people and Irish immigrants were living alongside one another in New York City's Five Points neighborhood. Bars erupted with spirited dance contests, playfully pitting Black American juba against Irish step dancing, and saw the early days of tap dancing. But in July 1863, the deadly New York Draft Riots burst this idyllic bubble. With choreography by the masterful Bill T. Jones and additional musical staging by Graciela Daniele and director Moisés Kaufman, Paradise Square will have its pre-Broadway run in Chicago Nov. 2–Dec. 5, followed by a planned Broadway opening March 20.

READ MORE

Jigs and Juba reunited in NYC +

A new African-Irish musical based on immigrants in New York could rival Hamilton’s Broadway success, writes Julian Brouwer

by Julian Brouwer
July 18, 2021

This week saw the Broadway musical Hamilton muscle its way up the Emmys list, scooping 12 nominations for the live-streamed version of the stage performance. The show has grossed over $612m to date and also won 11 gongs at the 70th Tony Awards. The musical, it seems, is back with a bang and the hunt is on for the next extravaganza.

Step up Paradise Square, which will be one of the most anticipated stage musicals to make it to Broadway since the pandemic began.

The new musical tells the story of how Irish immigrants fled the horrors of the Famine and settled in New York in the mid-1800s, living side by side with Black Americans in a racial powder keg, a slum called Five Points. The same area in downtown Manhattan was immortalised in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York.

Set mainly in a dance hall, the show traces the mix of African and Irish traditions that contributed to the development of tap as a dance form. According to the producers, it depicts a multiracial community “bound together by misery and music.”

Through their shared cultures, expressed in dance contests at local dance halls, tap dancing – a combination of Juba dance and Irish step dancing – evolved.

The action takes place in 1863 when the communities living in Five Points were disrupted by class, race, and economic tensions associated with the Civil War, and which eventually led to the New York City draft riots.

The idea for the show originated with Wexford-born musician Larry Kirwan, who was for 25 years the lead singer with Irish-American band Black 47.

He says he drew inspiration from stories his Irish grandfather told him about Five Points and its thriving dance halls.

Kirwan, who lives in New York, says: “Paradise Square is about two brutalised peoples, Irish and African American, one fleeing famine, and one fleeing slavery, who meet in the Five Points.

“They bond with each other through dance music. [After the African Americans first settled in Five Points], you got this big swarm of Irish immigrants who joined them in 1845 because of the Great Hunger.

“There are definitely parallels with Hamilton. Both deal with race and immigration, which are huge topics in America. Both are historical and musical. In Paradise Square, two groups of people get together and created a new society and it can happen again.

“At that time the Irish were actually lower on the social ladder than the African Americans. Many of the African Americans and the Irish intermarried and became what was known then as Amalgamationists.

“I used to read old books about the era. I would see pictures of Irish fiddlers playing Irish jigs, while the African Americans played with them. They were coming up with a new music. I began to look at pictures of the dancers – it was always the same – a Black man and an Irish woman. The look of joy in their faces beamed across the years. There was something special between them. The harmony between Irish and Blacks would only last 18 years until the Draft Riots claimed the lives of a dozen black people, who were lynched.

“Some of them stayed in New York but gradually it wasn’t cool any more to be an Amalgamationist,” says Kirwan. “It was dangerous to be one. The movement, such as it was, faded away.”

The writing team on the production includes Kirwan and veteran playwrights Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley and Craig Lucas.

They are working on rearranged and re-lyricised songs of 19th-century composer Stephen Foster, who spent the final months of his life in Five Points. Direction is by Moisés Kaufman, who is also directing Seven Deadly Sins this summer.

The production will star Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango – who is best known for another Broadway show The Color Purple – as lead character Nelly Freeman, and Chilina Kennedy.

The show also represents a comeback bid by the controversial producer Garth Drabinsky, who won three Tony Awards in the 1990s, including for Kiss of the Spider Woman.

“The public will tell me whether this is a comeback – I can’t predict anything – but I am certainly exhilarated,” he said. “I’m just thrilled to be back where I always longed to be, and doing what I always longed to do, which is to creatively produce theatre.

“Listening to this music I know is 150 years old and sounds like it was recorded yesterday, I got really excited about it.”

Kaufman said the show is particularly timely, as America grapples with its attitudes toward immigration and race.

“I’m fascinated by how we can discover the ideologies which we live under, so this was perfect for me,” he said.

“Five Points seemed like a really interesting social experiment. It wasn’t an ideological utopia – they were there because they could only afford to be there – and yet they were doing this thing that we all say we’re interested in doing, and it interests me to think about why it blew up.”

‘Paradise Square’ will open at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre next February, after a test run at Chicago’s James M Nederlander Theatre

Ceol na nGael: Interview with Larry Kirwan +

Ceol na nGael
June 13, 2021

Patrick Breen: We just found out some very exciting news about your musical Paradise Square, which is set to open on Broadway next winter. So, could you tell us a little bit about this new show?

Larry Kirwan: Well, it began as a musical called Hard Times, and it ran at the cell theater on Twenty Third Street back in 2012 and 2013. It got a great review in The New York Times. A person who has become a friend later, Peter LeDonne, who is a theater producer, came to see it and he put me in touch with a famous producer called Garth Drabinsky in Toronto. And I went up and worked on it for Garth for quite a while and we brought in a lot of other people to work on it: Bill T. Jones, the choreographer; Moisés Kaufman, the director; Jason Howland, the musical writer and arranger; and Nathan Tysen, who is a lyricist. So we all got in and raised our sleeves up and worked on it for years and did a lot of workshops of it up in Toronto. And then we changed the name of it to Paradise Square, because that was a part of the Five Points.

The story is basically about the Irish people who came over fleeing the Great Hunger between 1845 and 1850. And they landed in a place called the Five Points, which was a free African American area down around where the courthouses are below Chinatown right now. And the young women, especially young Irish women, because the social order had broken down in Ireland during the famine...when they arrived here, they started to go to the African American dance halls and they became friendly with young African American men and many of them married because there was a shortage of Irish men, and a shortage of African American women. And they had families and they were called amalgamationists. And I became fascinated with that group and wanted to write the story of a Black woman, Nellie, who runs a dance hall down there and how she deals with this whole new society. She has an Irish husband, and everything was going fine, until during the Civil War, the Draft Riots broke out on July 13, 1863. And there were riots and African Americans were hung. And the amalgamationists, basically many of them melted back into the Black communities. And so, their story disappeared. But I had heard of it from my grandfather, who I grew up with in Wexford. He was an old man and he raised me, and he had friends who went to the Five Points, and he told me about the beginnings of it.

And then one day in the Strand Bookstore, I came across a book of the dancers in an African American dance hall, and it was Irish women, Black men, and the look of joy on their faces just transported me across the years. And I decided to write a play about a dance hall and how the amalgamationists hung out there. And the one piece of music that I felt that both the Irish and the African Americans would know at that point were the songs of Stephen Foster. And I was already familiar with many of those. And so, we adapted a lot of Stephen Foster songs and then wrote new songs to try flesh out the action. And now it's called Paradise Square. It opens again in Chicago in November and then moves to Broadway in February, and that's the story.

Patrick Breen: Well, that sounds so exciting. You mentioned the dance hall and the various dancing that inspired you to write this story. Maggie and I are both Irish dancers, and I know we're both fascinated, and we talk about it on the show all the time about ceilidhs, and the importance of that in our families. I'm sure many in your family, Maggie, met through ceilidhs. I know that my mom and dad met through a ceilidh. So what kind of research went into that and how did the dance aspect of it inspire you to write this story?

Larry Kirwan: Well, odd that you mentioned ceilidh, because when I was about 15, I went to a place called Baylon Guiora in County Cork, and every night there was a ceilidh. And I learned ceilidh dancing for the first time in Wexford, which was kind of a rock and roll town. But I learned to love the ceilidh dancing - I wasn't that much good at it, but the Walls of Limerick and those simple dances. And so, I had a familiarity with it. But I also researched where tap dancing came from and it was a mixture of Irish step dancing and African sway. And Master Juba was the great dancer of his day. I can't remember the name of the Irish champion, except his name is Irish Mike. And they had great battles and people would bet money on each of them. But they became friends and they realized they were the only ones not making money. So they began to throw the dances. They would bet on the one that they said was going to win that day. So right from the start, there was trickery going on. But how the whole thing came around was the Irish guy would come out first, say he would be chosen to flip a coin and he would do all these great steps. And then the African American guy would come out. And what he was allowed to do was imitate the Irish guy with his steps, but then show how better his steps were. And then the Irish guy was allowed to come back out and do the same thing. So gradually, by imitating each other, they were coming up with step dancing or with tap dancing all the time. And that's a big part of it. And you probably know the group Hammerstep.

Patrick Breen: I do, yep.

Larry Kirwan: Those guys are doing the choreography of the Irish step dancing and they're working hand in hand with Bill T. Jones, who's always my favorite choreographer and dancer. And then I'm married to a choreographer myself, so I had it in the background.

Maggie Peknic: All my cousins are Irish dancers too, so we would love to do dance battles. I'm not sure if they were as good, though, as the ones you just mentioned. My cousins, we all love Broadway. We go all the time. But I know given the pandemic, it had to be put on hold. So what type of impact did Covid-19 and the pandemic specifically have on Paradise Square?

Larry Kirwan: Well, we had a big hit with it at Berkeley Rep in 2018-2019 and it ran for ten weeks out there. It got extended twice. But we had to stop because there was another show coming in. And then we were planning on bringing it to Broadway soon after that but everything froze at that point. And, you know, it's just one of those things you've got to swing with. The dancing was ferocious in Paradise Square. Those Hammerstep guys, when they get going and then Bill T. Jones is a monster, you know what he was getting the people to do and pushing them. So, I think in many ways it didn't hurt for everyone to take a bit of a break. It was fiery because the action takes place in dance battles between Irish and African Americans. And then so rather than having violence in there all the time, it takes place through dance steps. It's great seeing Irish dance being taken to the fullest limit and going up against some of this amazing Broadway dancing that's out there at this point that many of the African Americans were well versed in, but also what Bill T. Jones and his researchers did by going back and finding out how that music and how to dance came from Africa and how the Irish dance came from Ireland, and oddly enough, it wasn't the stiff, hands down by the side style. It was the Sean Nos Irish dancing where they were actually moving. At first, we were doing the stiff type thing. But then I happened upon Sean Nos by accident one day and took it in and said, hey, you know, the Irish were moving their arms too, at this point. And from that point on, the dancing got wilder.

Patrick Breen: Well, it's a bit like West Side Story, those sort of dance battles and fighting through dance. And this is really piquing my interest now. Boy, I can't wait to see this.

The first entirely new Broadway show since the start of the pandemic will be about 19th century New York +

By Anna Rahmanan
June 9, 2021

While New Yorkers gear up to return to Broadway and catch all the shows that had to suddenly close in response to the COVID-19 pandemic back in March (here are all the ones you can already buy tickets for), an entirely new production is now demanding our attention. Exploring race relations in 19th century New York, Paradise Square is a new musical set to open on the Great White Way next winter, effectively becoming the very first unscheduled show since the pandemic to announce an opening date.

As of now, previews are set to begin on February 22 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street. The show will then open on March 20.

More details about the plot: Set in 1863, smack-dab in the middle of the Civil War, the musical focuses on Lower Manhattan's Five Points neighborhood, where free Black and Irish immigrants live together. As much an exploration of the history of dance halls as it is about racial relations, the show's epicenter is Paradise Square, a local saloon owned by a Black woman named Nelly Freeman.

"With visceral and nuanced staging and choreography that captures the pulsating energy when Black and Irish cultures meet and set to a contemporary score that reimagines early American song, Paradise Square depicts an overlooked true-life moment when hope and possibility shone bright," reads the show's official description.

Slave Play star and current Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango will play Freeman in a cast that includes Sidney DuPont, Chilina Kennedy and Nathaniel Stampley, among others. Moisés Kaufman will serve as the production's director, Garth Drabinsky will produce and Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen are responsible for the show's score.

Ready or not, Broadway is plotting a huge comeback—and we're giddy with excitement at the mere thought of it.

New Musical About 19th-Century New York Plans Broadway Run +

By Michael Paulson
June 7, 2021

“Paradise Square,” a new musical that explores race relations in 19th-century New York, plans to open on Broadway next winter, making it the first previously unscheduled musical to step forward since the pandemic began.

The show, which has been reworked and in development for a decade, is about a long-gone slum in Lower Manhattan, Five Points, where, during the run-up to the Civil War, free Black residents and Irish immigrants coexisted until the draft riots of 1863.

Not only about the history of New York City, the musical is also about the history of music and dance. It features songs by Stephen Foster, a prominent 19th-century American songwriter who spent time toward the end of his life in Five Points, and it credits the Five Points community with a role in the origins of tap dance. (Tap is an American dance form that is generally understood to have roots in the British Isles and Africa; it has a complex and murky history, but the dancing cellars of the Five Points were an important site of development for the form.)

“Paradise Square” a comeback bid by storied Canadian producer, Garth Drabinsky, is to star Joaquina Kalukango, a Tony nominee for “Slave Play,” as the proprietor of the saloon in which much of the action takes place. Other cast members include Chilina Kennedy (“Beautiful”), John Dossett (a Tony nominee for “Gypsy”), Sidney DuPont (“Beautiful”), A.J. Shively (“Bright Star”), Nathaniel Stampley (“The Color Purple”), Gabrielle McClinton (“Pippin”), Jacob Fishel (“Fiddler on the Roof”) and Kevin Dennis.

The Broadway run is scheduled to begin previews Feb. 22 and to open March 20 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.

The show has a complex production history and an evolving creative team, led by the director Moisés Kaufman (best known as the creator of “The Laramie Project”) and the choreographer Bill T. Jones (a two-time Tony winner, for “Fela!” and “Spring Awakening”). It is based on a musical called “Hard Times,” which was conceived by Larry Kirwan, the lead singer of Black 47, and staged at the Cell Theater in 2012. Then, as “Paradise Square,” it had a production at Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2019, and this fall, before transferring to Broadway, it is scheduled to have a five-week run at the James M. Nederlander Theater in Chicago.

The book is now credited to four writers: Kirwan and three playwrights, Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley and Craig Lucas. The score, which includes original songs as well as some attributed to Foster, now has three writers: Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare.

Kaufman said the interruption of the pandemic provided the creative team “an opportunity to think.”

“At Berkeley we learned that our story is epic, but we needed to continue focusing on our individual characters,” he said. “And that’s the work that’s occurred.”

Garth Drabinsky-Produced ‘Paradise Square’ Announces 2022 Broadway Opening +

By Greg Evans
June 7, 2021

Paradise Square, the original musical from a creative team that includes Moisés Kaufman, Bill T. Jones, Craig Lucas and Black 47 singer Larry Kirwan, will begin Broadway previews at the Shubert Organization’s Barrymore Theatre on February 22, 2022, with an opening night set for Sunday, March 20.

Producer Garth H. Drabinsky announced the dates today, along with the new casting of Joaquina Kalukango, currently Tony-nominated for her performance in Slave Play.

As previously reported, the production will arrive on Broadway directly from a five-week Chicago engagement.

The musical’s creative team includes director Moisés Kaufman and choreographer Bill T. Jones, with a book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. Graciela Daniele will provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The score of Paradise Square is by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen, with additional material provided by Masi Asare and Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as reimaginings of the songs of Stephen Foster.

Set in New York City’s Five Points neighborhood of 1863, Paradise Square chronicles the raucous dance contests between the area’s Irish and Black communities, and a racial equilibrium that came to a brutal end with the deadly NY Draft Riots.

The musical will mark the return to Broadway of the once ubiquitous Canadian theater producer Drabinsky. At his peak in the 1990s, Drabinsky produced such Broadway hits as Kiss of the Spider Woman, Show Boat, Ragtime and Fosse. Drabinsky is teamed on Paradise Square with longtime colleague Peter LeDonne, who co-produces.

Kalukango, best known for her role as Kaneisha in Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, also appeared on Broadway in The Color Purpl, Holler If Ya Hear Me and Godspell. Her film and television credits include Amazon’s “One Night in Miami,” HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” and the Netflix series “When They See Us.”

Paradise Square will also feature Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Jacob Fishel and Kevin Dennis.

Paradise Square’ Broadway Musical to Star Joaquina Kalukango +

By Etan Vlessing
June 7, 2021

Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango will lead the cast for the new Broadway musical Paradise Square, to open on March 20, 2022 at the Barrymore Theatre.

Former Livent co-founder Garth Drabinsky will produce the first new musical unveiled for Broadway since the pandemic. Set in 1863 New York City amid the Civil War, Paradise Square portrays Irish immigrants and free-born Black Americans living in co-existence in the unlikeliest of neighborhoods.

The musical is based on Hard Times, conceived by Larry Kirwan, which originally ran off-Broadway in 2012. Kalukango is a 2020 Tony Award nominee for best lead actress for her role as Kaneisha in Slave Play.

She has also starred on Broadway in The Color Purple, Holler If Ya Hear Me and Godspell. Her film and TV credits include the role of Betty X in Amazon’s “One Night in Miami” and star turns in HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” and the Netflix series “When They See Us.”

Paradise Square will also star Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont and A.J. Shively.

The creative team for Paradise Square includes a score by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen, and direction by Moisés Kaufman and choreography by Bill T. Jones.

Chicago’s Pre-Broadway ‘Paradise Square’ sets cast +

By Chris Jones
June 7, 2021

The Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango (“Slave Play”) and the Canadian musical-theater star Chilina Kennedy (“Beautiful”) are to star in “Paradise Square,” the Garth Drabinsky musical trying out this fall in Chicago and then headed to Broadway.

The Canadian producer is returning to downtown Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre (formerly the Oriental Theatre), which he restored and where he staged lavish productions of both “Showboat” and “Ragtime.”

“Paradise Square,” which will run between Nov. 2 and Dec. 5 in Chicago before a planned Broadway opening of March 20, tells the story of Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood in the mid-19th century and posits that the impoverished area supported an integrated community of Black Americans and Irish immigrants.

Other leading performers in the cast include Tony Award nominee John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Jacob Fishel and Kevin Dennis.

Direction is by Moisés Kaufman (“I Am My Own Wife,”), choreography by Bill T. Jones (”Spring Awakening”), and the multi-author book is from Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. The longtime Drabinsky collaborator Graciela Daniele (“Ragtime”) will provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The musical features original songs and musical material by Jason Howland, Nathan Tyson and Masi Asare, as well as using some of the songs of Stephen Foster, who was writing and living in the Five Points during the era of the show.

Chicago cast announced for ‘Paradise Square’ pre-Broadway run +

By Miriam Di Nunzio
June 7, 2021

The cast for the Broadway-bound musical “Paradise Square,” which will receive its pre-Broadway run in Chicago this fall, was announced Monday.

Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango and Chilina Kennedy will lead the cast for the show which will receive a five-week engagement at the James M. Nederlander Theatre (24 W. Randolph) Nov. 2-Dec. 5.

The cast will also feature John Dossett, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Sidney DuPont, Gabrielle McClinton, Kevin Dennis and Jacob Fishel.

Produced by Garth Drabinsky, “Paradise Square” is directed by Tony Award nominee Moisés Kaufman (“I Am My Own Wife”), with choreography by two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones (“Spring Awakening,” “Fela!’), and a book by Christina Anderson Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. The production features the “re-imagined” songs of Stephen Foster and original compositions, with a score by Jason Howland (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”), Nathan Tysen (“Tuck Everlasting”), Masi Asare (“Monsoon Wedding”) and Kirwan.

The production, which received its world premiere in 2019 at Berkeley Rep, tells the story, set in New York in 1863, about the tenement housing community of Five Points in Lower Manhattan where Irish immigrants and free-born Black Americans who had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad co-existed and shared their cultures as the tight-knit community until the Civil War’s New York Draft Riots of 1863 violently changed everything.

“It is here in the Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba,” the show’s official press announcement stated.

New Musical Paradise Square Sets Broadway Dates and Theatre +

By Ryan McPhee
June 7, 2021

Following a previously announced engagement in Chicago, the new musical Paradise Square will open at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre March 20, 2022. Previews will begin February 22.

Set in Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the Civil War, the musical follows the inhabitants of a local saloon—including the Black woman who owns it, a conflicted newly arrived Irish immigrant, a runaway slave, and a once-great songwriter.

Joaquina Kalukango, a current Tony nominee for Slave Play, will take on the central role of Nelly Freeman, the saloon proprietor. The principal cast will also include Chilina Kennedy (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), John Dossett (Gypsy), Sidney DuPont (Beautiful), A.J. Shively (Bright Star), Nathaniel Stampley (Porgy and Bess), Gabrielle McClinton (Pippin), Jacob Fishel (Fiddler on the Roof), and Kevin Dennis (Young Frankenstein in Canada).

Additional company members will include Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Jacobi Hall, Sean Jenness, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Eilis Quinn, Sara Sheperd, Lael van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren, and Hailee Kaleem Wright, with more to be announced later.

Moisés Kaufman directs the staging, having helmed the 2018 world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Garth Drabinsky will produce, with his longtime collaborator Peter LeDonne co-producing.

Conceived by Larry Kirwan, Paradise Square features a score by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen, with additional material by Masi Asare and Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster. Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Kirwan penned the book.

Also among the creative team are choreographer Bill T. Jones, musical stager Graciela Daniele, scenic designer Allen Moyer, costume designer Toni-Leslie James, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Jon Weston, projection designer Wendall K. Harrington, special effects designer Gregory Meech, hair and wig designer Matthew B. Armentrout, and dramaturgs Thulani Davis and Sydné Mahone. Casting is by Stewart/Whitley.

The Chicago run will play the James M. Nederlander Theatre November 2–December 5.

Joaquina Kalukango to Lead Paradise Square on Broadway +

By Lindsey Sullivan
June 7, 2021

The new musical Paradise Square, which, as previously reported, will play Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre from November 2 through December 5, is officially Broadway-bound. Performances will begin at the Barrymore Theatre on February 22, 2022 with an opening night set for March 20. Director Moisés Kaufman and choreographer Bill T. Jones will return to the show, which was conceived by Larry Kirwan.

Paradise Square will star Slave Play Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Jacob Fishel and Kevin Dennis.

The production will also feature Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Jacobi Hall, Sean Jenness, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Eilis Quinn, Sara Sheperd, Lael van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren and Hailee Kaleem Wright. Additional casting will be announced later.

Within this galvanizing story of racial harmony undone by a country at war with itself, audiences will meet the denizens of a local saloon called Paradise Square in this show. They include Nelly Freeman (Kalukango), the indomitable Black woman who owns it; Annie O’Brien (Kennedy), her Irish-Catholic sister-in-law and her Black minister husband, Rev. Samuel Jacob Lewis (Stampley); Owen Duignan (Shively), a conflicted newly arrived Irish immigrant; Washington Henry (DuPont), a fearless freedom seeker; Frederic Tiggens (Dossett), an anti-abolitionist political boss, and Milton Moore (Fishel), a penniless songwriter trying to capture it all. They have conflicting notions of what it means to be an American while living through one of the most tumultuous eras in our country’s history.

Paradise Square features a book co-written by Craig Lucas, Marcus Gardley, Christina Anderson and Kirwan. The music is by Jason Howland and Kirwan, with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and additional material by Masi Asare. Graciela Daniele provides the musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The creative team includes scenic designer Allen Moyer, costume designer Toni-Leslie James, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Jon Weston, hair and wig designer Matthew B. Armentrout, associate choreographers Talli Jackson and Gelan Lambert and projection designer Wendall K. Harrington with special effects by Gregory Meeh. Irish and Hammerstep choreography is by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus.

The world premiere of Paradise Square was produced in January 2019 by Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The musical is based on Hard Times, conceived by Kirwan, which was originally presented off-Broadway in 2012. The musical is being produced on Broadway by Tony winner Garth Drabinsky.

Cast Announced for Paradise Square on Broadway, Marking Return of Producer Garth Drabinsky +

By David Gordon
June 7, 2021

Casting has been announced for the Broadway premiere of the new musical Paradise Square, which will run at the Barrymore Theatre beginning February 22, 2022. It will open on Sunday, March 20, 2022.

The show is produced by Garth H. Drabinsky, the Tony-winning producer behind Kiss of the Spider Woman.

The cast will be headed by Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Jacob Fishel, and Kevin Dennis. In the ensemble are Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Jacobi Hall, Sean Jenness, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Eilis Quinn, Sara Sheperd, Lael van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren, and Hailee Kaleem Wright. Additional casting will be announced shortly.

Paradise Square is set in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City circa 1863 and is about a community of poor Irish immigrants and free Blacks who survive the war years and Draft Riots with raucous dance contests in neighborhood bars and dance halls. "It is here in the Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba," according to a press statement.

The book is a collaboration by Christina Anderson (Good Goods), Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand), Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza), and Larry Kirwan (lead singer of Black 47). The score of Paradise Square is by composer Jason Howland (who did the arrangements for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) and lyricist Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting). Additional material is provided by Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding) and Larry Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster ("Camptown Races"), who was writing and living in the Five Points at the time.

Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project) directs, with choreography by two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!). Ten-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, Once on This Island) will provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones. The production will have scenic design by Allen Moyer, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Donald Holder, and sound design by Jon Weston. Dramaturgy is by Thulani Davis and Sydné Mahone. Projection design is by Wendall K. Harrington. Special effects are by Gregory Meeh. Hair and wig design is by Matthew B. Armentrout. Associate choreographers are Talli Jackson and Gelan Lambert. Irish and Hammerstep choreography is by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus. Anne Allan is Associate Producer and Senior Resident Director. Zachary Florence is Associate Producer. Jeff Chrzczon is General Manager. Casting is by Stewart/Whitley, CSA.

Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre will host the pre-Broadway run, November 2-December 5.

Joaquina Kalukango Will Star in PARADISE SQUARE Opening on Broadway March 20 +

By Stephi Wild
June 7, 2021

Casting and performance dates have been announced for the Broadway run of Paradise Square, which will open on Broadway on Sunday, March 20, 2022 at The Shubert Organization's Barrymore Theatre.

Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango (Slave Play, One Night in Miami), will lead the cast of the new musical. The production will come to Broadway directly following a five-week engagement (November 2-December 5, 2021) at Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre (24 West Randolph Street).

The musical arrives with Tony winner Garth H. Drabinsky attached as producer.

Ms. Kalukango is a 2020 Tony Award nominee for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role as Kaneisha in Slave Play. She has also starred on Broadway in The Color Purple, Holler If Ya Hear Me and Godspell. Her film and television credits include the role of Betty X in Amazon's One Night in Miami (SAG Award nomination, Cast in a Motion Picture), HBO's "Lovecraft Country" and the Netflix series, "When They See Us."

Paradise Square will also star Chilina Kennedy (over 1200 performances in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway; International tour of The Band's Visit), Tony Award nominee John Dossett (Broadway's Pippin, Newsies, Gypsy, Ragtime), Sidney DuPont (Broadway's Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; National tours of Memphis, A Chorus Line), A.J. Shively (Broadway's La Cage aux Folles, Bright Star), Nathaniel Stampley (Broadway's The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, The Color Purple), Gabrielle McClinton (Broadway's Pippin, Chicago), Jacob Fishel (Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof), and Kevin Dennis (Canadian productions of Young Frankenstein, Assassins).

The creative team for Paradise Square features direction by two-time Tony Award nominee Moisés Kaufman (I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project), choreography by two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!), and a book by Christina Anderson (Good Goods, Inked Baby), Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand), Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza) and Larry Kirwan (lead singer of Black 47). Ten-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, Once on This Island) will provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The score of Paradise Square is by the team of Grammy and Emmy Award winner Jason Howland (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Little Women - The Musical) and Nathan Tysen (Amélie, Tuck Everlasting), with additional material provided by Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding, The Family Resemblance) and Mr. Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster, who was writing and living in the Five Points at the time.

Paradise Square is produced by Garth H. Drabinsky (Kiss of the Spider Woman (Tony Award, Best Musical), Show Boat (Tony Award, Best Revival of a Musical), Ragtime, Fosse (Tony Award, Best Musical), Parade). Mr. Drabinsky's longtime colleague, documentary filmmaker Peter LeDonne (the Academy Award-nominated Curtain Call and Sister Rose's Passion) is co-producing.

The production will also feature Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Jacobi Hall, Sean Jenness, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Eilis Quinn, Sara Sheperd, Lael Van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren and Hailee Kaleem Wright. Additional casting will be announced shortly.

The multi-award-winning creative team features scenic design by Allen Moyer, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Donald Holder, and sound design by Jon Weston. Dramaturgy is by Thulani Davis and Sydné Mahone. Projection design is by Wendall K. Harrington. Special effects are by Gregory Meeh. Hair and wig design is by Matthew B. Armentrout. Associate choreographers are Talli Jackson and Gelan Lambert. Irish and Hammerstep choreography is by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus. Anne Allan is Associate Producer and Senior Resident Director. Zachary Florence is Associate Producer. Jeff Chrzczon is General Manager. Casting is by Stewart/Whitley, CSA.

New Musical About 19th Century New York Plans Broadway Run +

“Paradise Square,” a new musical that explores race relations in 19th-century New York, plans to open on Broadway next winter ... “Paradise Square” is a comeback bid by storied Canadian producer Garth Drabinsky, who won three Tony Awards in the 1990s ... The musical is to star Joaquina Kalukango ... Chilina Kennedy ... John Dossett ... Sidney DuPont ... A.J. Shively ... Nathaniel Stampley ... and Jacob Fishel ... The Broadway run is scheduled to begin previews Feb. 22 and to open March 20 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.”

‘Paradise Square,’ produced by Garth Drabinsky, announces Broadway run +

By Caitlin Huston
June 7, 2021

“Paradise Square,” a new musical about race relations in New York during the 1860s, has announced a Broadway run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre this winter.

The musical, produced by Garth Drabinsky, will star Joaquina Kalukango (“Slave Play”) in a run starting Feb. 22, 2022 and an opening night on March 20. The musical will come to Broadway after a five-week engagement starting this November at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre.

The story takes place in the Five Points neighborhood of New York in 1863, at which time Irish immigrants, free Black Americans and those who had escaped slavery co-existed together. The production credits the mixture of communities in Five Points with the creation of tap dance.

Additional cast members include Chilina Kennedy (“Beautiful”), John Dossett (“Pippin”), Sidney DuPont (“Beautiful”), A.J. Shively (“Bright Star”), Nathaniel Stampley (“The Color Purple”), Gabrielle McClinton (“Pippin”), Jacob Fishel (“Fiddler on the Roof”) and Kevin Dennis.

“Paradise Square” features songs by composer Stephen Foster, who lived in the Five Points neighborhood of the Lower East Side during the musical’s time period, as well as original songs by musical theater writers Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen, Masi Asare and Larry Kirwan, lead singer of the rock band Black 47. Kirwan’s original musical “Hard Times” provided the basis for “Paradise Square.”

The world premiere of “Paradise Square” was produced at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in January 2019.

The musical is directed by Moisés Kaufman, director of “The Laramie Project,” and features choreography by Bill T. Jones and a book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan.

‘Paradise Square’ gets Broadway transfer at Barrymore Theatre +

By Sophie Thomas
June 7, 2021

Following a 2018 world premiere and an upcoming engagement in Chicago, Paradise Square will receive its Broadway premiere in 2022. Paradise Square will begin previews at the Barrymore Theatre on Feb. 22, 2022, ahead of an opening night on Mar. 20, 2022.

Set in 19th-century New York, African Americans and Irish Americans live side by side,, eventually finding harmony with one another. After a brief period of co-existing, communities danced together; Irish step dancing and Black American Juba took to the floor. But when President Lincoln calls the first Federal Draft, will friendships in the Five Points prevail?

Joaquina Kalukango will play Nelly Freeman, currently nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in Slave Play. Casting includes Chilina Kennedy, John Dossett, Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton, Jacob Fishel and Kevin Dennis, Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Jacobi Hall, Sean Jenness, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Eilis Quinn, Sara Sheperd, Lael van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren and Hailee Kaleem Wright. Additional casting is to be announced.

Paradise Square features an original book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. Music and lyrics are by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen, as well as inspiration from Stephen Foster, who lived in Five Points during the 19th century.

Direction is by Moisés Kaufman, who is also directing Seven Deadly Sins this summer. Choreography is by Bill T. Jones with scenic design by Allen Moyer, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Donald Holder, and sound design by Jon Weston.

Paradise Square made its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in January 2019. Later this year, Paradise Square is at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre for five weeks, ahead of its Broadway run.

Paradise Square is at the Barrymore Theatre from February 22.

PARADISE SQUARE Announces Broadway Opening, Starring Tony Award Nominee Joaquina Kalukango +

By Zack Reiser
June 7, 2021

Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango (Slave Play, One Night in Miami) will lead the cast of the new musical Paradise Square, which will open on Broadway on Sunday, March 20, 2022 at the Barrymore Theatre. Previews will begin on February 22, 2022. The production will come to Broadway directly following a five-week engagement (November 2-December 5, 2021) at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre.

Ms. Kalukango is a 2020 Tony Award nominee for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role as Kaneisha in Slave Play. She has also starred on Broadway in The Color Purple, Holler If Ya Hear Me and Godspell. Her film and television credits include the role of Betty X in Amazon's One Night in Miami (SAG Award nomination, Cast in a Motion Picture), HBO's "Lovecraft Country" and the Netflix series, "When They See Us."

Paradise Square will also star Chilina Kennedy (over 1200 performances in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway; International tour of The Band's Visit), Tony Award nominee John Dossett (Broadway's Pippin, Newsies, Gypsy, Ragtime), Sidney DuPont (Broadway's Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; National tours of Memphis, A Chorus Line), A.J. Shively (Broadway's La Cage aux Folles, Bright Star), Nathaniel Stampley (Broadway's The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, The Color Purple), Gabrielle McClinton (Broadway's Pippin, Chicago), Jacob Fishel (Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof), and Kevin Dennis (Canadian productions of Young Frankenstein, Assassins).

The distinguished creative team for Paradise Square features direction by two-time Tony Award nominee Moisés Kaufman (I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project), choreography by two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!), and a book by Christina Anderson (Good Goods, Inked Baby), Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand), Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza) and Larry Kirwan (lead singer of Black 47). Ten-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, Once on This Island) will provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The score of Paradise Square is by the team of Grammy and Emmy Award winner Jason Howland (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Little Women - The Musical) and Nathan Tysen (Amélie, Tuck Everlasting), with additional material provided by Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding, The Family Resemblance) and Mr. Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster, who was writing and living in the Five Points at the time.

Paradise Square is produced by Garth H. Drabinsky (Kiss of the Spider Woman (Tony Award, Best Musical), Show Boat (Tony Award, Best Revival of a Musical), Ragtime, Fosse (Tony Award, Best Musical), Parade). Mr. Drabinsky’s longtime colleague, documentary filmmaker Peter LeDonne (the Academy Award-nominated Curtain Call and Sister Rose’s Passion) is co-producing.

The production will also feature Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Jacobi Hall, Sean Jenness, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Eilis Quinn, Sara Sheperd, Lael van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren and Hailee Kaleem Wright. Additional casting will be announced shortly.

The multi-award-winning creative team features scenic design by Allen Moyer, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Donald Holder, and sound design by Jon Weston. Dramaturgy is by Thulani Davisand Sydné Mahone. Projection design is by Wendall K. Harrington. Special effects are by Gregory Meeh. Hair and wig design is by Matthew B. Armentrout. Associate choreographers are Talli Jackson and Gelan Lambert. Irish and Hammerstep choreography is by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus. Anne Allan is Associate Producer and Senior Resident Director. Zachary Florence is Associate Producer. Jeff Chrzczon is General Manager. Casting is by Stewart/Whitley, CSA.

New York City. 1863. The Civil War raged on. An extraordinary thing occurred amid the dangerous streets and crumbling tenement houses of the Five Points, the notorious 19th-century Lower Manhattan slum. For many years, Irish immigrants escaping the devastation of the Great Famine settled alongside free-born Black Americans and those who escaped slavery, arriving by means of the Underground Railroad. The Irish, relegated at that time to the lowest rung of America’s social status, received a sympathetic welcome from their Black neighbors (who enjoyed only slightly better treatment in the burgeoning industrial-era city). The two communities co-existed, intermarried, raised families, and shared their cultures in this unlikeliest of neighborhoods.

The amalgamation between the communities took its most exuberant form with raucous dance contests on the floors of the neighborhood bars and dance halls. It is here in the Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba.

But this racial equilibrium would come to a sharp and brutal end when President Lincoln’s need to institute the first Federal Draft to support the Union Army would incite the deadly NY Draft Riots of July 1863.

Within this galvanizing story of racial harmony undone by a country at war with itself, we meet the denizens of a local saloon called Paradise Square: Nelly Freeman (Joaquina Kalukango), the indomitable Black woman who owns it; Annie O’Brien (Chilina Kennedy), her Irish-Catholic sister-in-law and her Black minister husband, Rev. Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley); Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively), a conflicted newly arrived Irish immigrant; Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), a fearless freedom seeker; Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), an anti-abolitionist political boss, and Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), a penniless songwriter trying to capture it all. They have conflicting notions of what it means to be an American while living through one of the most tumultuous eras in our country’s history.

Paradise Square, A New Musical, announces cast & Broadway premiere +

June 7, 2021

Announced today, Tony Award-nominee Joaquina Kalukango (Slave Play, One Night in Miami), will lead the cast of the new musical, Paradise Square, which will open on Broadway on Sunday, March 20, 2022, at the Shubert Organization’s Barrymore Theatre. Previews will begin on February 22, 2022. The production will come to Broadway directly following a five-week engagement (November 2–December 5, 2021) at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre.

Ms. Kalukango is a 2020 Tony Award nominee for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role as Kaneisha in Slave Play. She has also starred on Broadway in The Color PurpleHoller If Ya Hear Me, and Godspell. Her film and television credits include the role of Betty X in Amazon’s One Night in Miami (SAG Award nomination, Cast in a Motion Picture), HBO’s Lovecraft Country and the Netflix series, When They See Us.

Paradise Square will also star Chilina Kennedy (over 1200 performances in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway; International tour of The Band’s Visit), Tony Award nominee John Dossett (Broadway’s PippinNewsiesGypsyRagtime), Sidney DuPont (Broadway’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; National tours of MemphisA Chorus Line), A.J. Shively (Broadway’s La Cage aux FollesBright Star), Nathaniel Stampley (Broadway’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and BessThe Color Purple), Gabrielle McClinton (Broadway’s PippinChicago), Jacob Fishel  (Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof), and Kevin Dennis (Canadian productions of Young FrankensteinAssassins).

The distinguished creative team for Paradise Square features direction by two-time Tony Award nominee Moisés Kaufman (I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project), choreography by two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!), and a book by Christina Anderson (Good Goods, Inked Baby), Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand), Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza) and Larry Kirwan (lead singer of Black 47). Ten-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, Once on This Island) will provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The score of Paradise Square is by the team of Grammy and Emmy Award winner Jason Howland (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Little Women - The Musical) and Nathan Tysen (Amélie, Tuck Everlasting), with additional material provided by Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding, The Family Resemblance) and Mr. Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster, who was writing and living in the Five Points at the time.

Paradise Square is produced by Garth H. Drabinsky (Kiss of the Spider Woman (Tony Award, Best Musical), Show Boat (Tony Award, Best Revival of a Musical), Ragtime, Fosse (Tony Award, Best Musical), Parade). Mr. Drabinsky’s longtime colleague, documentary filmmaker Peter LeDonne (the Academy Award-nominated Curtain Call and Sister Rose’s Passion) is co-producing.

The production will also feature Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Jacobi Hall, Sean Jenness, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Eilis Quinn, Sara Sheperd, Lael van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren and Hailee Kaleem Wright. Additional casting will be announced shortly.

The multi-award-winning creative team features scenic design by Allen Moyer, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Donald Holder, and sound design by Jon Weston. Dramaturgy is by Thulani Davis and Sydné Mahone. Projection design is by Wendall K. Harrington. Special effects are by Gregory Meeh. Hair and wig design is by Matthew B. Armentrout. Associate choreographers are Talli Jackson and Gelan Lambert. Irish and Hammerstep choreography is by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus. Anne Allan is Associate Producer and Senior Resident Director. Zachary Florence is Associate Producer. Jeff Chrzczon is General Manager. Casting is by Stewart/Whitley, CSA.

Paradise Square, A New Musical, sets pre-Broadway run in Chicago +

By Lamont Williams
June 7, 2021

Paradise Square is an original musical from a creative team that includes Moisés Kaufman, Bill T. Jones, Craig Lucas and Black 47 singer Larry Kirwan. It will be the first major pre-Broadway show to open in Chicago after the pandemic shutdown.

The newly announced cast includes Tony Award nominee for Slave Play, Joaquina Kalukango, who stars with Chilina Kennedy (over 1200 performances in Beautiful on Broadway), Tony Award nominee John Dossett (Pippin, Gypsy, Ragtime), Sidney DuPont (Broadway’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; National tours of Memphis, A Chorus Line), A.J. Shively (Broadway’s La Cage aux Folles, Bright Star), Nathaniel Stampley (Broadway’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, The Color Purple), Gabrielle McClinton (Broadway’s Pippin, Chicago), Jacob Fishel (Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof), and Kevin Dennis (Canadian productions of Young Frankenstein, Assassins).

New York City. 1863. The Civil War raged on. An extraordinary thing occurred amid the dangerous streets and crumbling tenement houses of the Five Points, the notorious 19th-century Lower Manhattan slum. For many years, Irish immigrants escaping the devastation of the Great Famine settled alongside free-born Black Americans and those who escaped slavery, arriving by means of the Underground Railroad. The Irish, relegated at that time to the lowest rung of America’s social status, received a sympathetic welcome from their Black neighbors (who enjoyed only slightly better treatment in the burgeoning industrial-era city). The two communities co-existed, intermarried, raised families, and shared their cultures in this unlikeliest of neighborhoods.

The amalgamation between the communities took its most exuberant form with raucous dance contests on the floors of the neighborhood bars and dance halls. It is here in the Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba.

But this racial equilibrium would come to a sharp and brutal end when President Lincoln’s need to institute the first Federal Draft to support the Union Army would incite the deadly NY Draft Riots of July 1863.

Within this galvanizing story of racial harmony undone by a country at war with itself, we meet the denizens of a local saloon called Paradise Square: Nelly Freeman (Joaquina Kalukango), the indomitable Black woman who owns it; Annie O’Brien (Chilina Kennedy), her Irish-Catholic sister-in-law and her Black minister husband, Rev. Samuel Jacob Lewis (Nathaniel Stampley); Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively), a conflicted newly arrived Irish immigrant; Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), a fearless freedom seeker; Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), an anti-abolitionist political boss, and Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), a penniless songwriter trying to capture it all. They have conflicting notions of what it means to be an American while living through one of the most tumultuous eras in our country’s history.

The world premiere was produced in January 2019 by Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The musical is based on Hard Times, conceived by Mr. Kirwan, which was originally presented at the intimate Off-Broadway theatre, Nancy Manocherian’s the cell, in 2012.

With visceral and nuanced staging and choreography that captures the pulsating energy when Black and Irish cultures meet, Paradise Square depicts an overlooked true-life moment when hope and possibility shone bright.

The musical is produced by Garth H. Drabinsky, marking a return of the once ubiquitous Canadian theater executive. Drabinsky, whose previous Broadway productions included Kiss of the Spider Woman, Show Boat, Ragtime and Fosse, is teamed on Paradise Square with longtime colleague Peter LeDonne, who co-produces.

The creative team features direction by Kaufman (I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project), choreography by Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!), book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Lucas and Kirwan. Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, Once on This Island) will provide the musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The score is by the team of Jason Howland (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) and Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting), with additional material provided by Masi Asare and Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster, who was writing and living in the Five Points at the time.

The world premiere of Paradise Square was produced in January 2019 by Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The musical is based on Hard Times, originally conceived by Mr. Kirwan, which was originally presented Off Broadway in 2012.

Joaquina Kalukango to star in PARADISE SQUARE, A New Musical +

By Jenny Ell
June 7, 2021

Tony Award nominee Joaquina Kalukango has been confirmed to lead the cast of new musical, Paradise Square, which will open at Broadway’s Barrymore Theatre in March 2022, following a five-week engagement in Chicago later this year.

Kalukango is a 2020 Tony Award nominee for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role as Kaneisha in Slave Play. She has also starred on Broadway in The Color Purple, Holler If Ya Hear Me and Godspell.

Paradise Square will also star Chilina Kennedy (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, The Band's Visit), Tony Award nominee John Dossett (Pippin, Newsies), Sidney DuPont (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Memphis), A.J. Shively (La Cage aux Folles, Bright Star), Nathaniel Stampley (The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, The Color Purple), Gabrielle McClinton (Pippin, Chicago), Jacob Fishel (Fiddler on the Roof), and Kevin Dennis (Young Frankenstein, Assassins).

The production will also feature Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Dwayne Clark, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloe Davis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Sam Edgerly, Shiloh Goodin, Jacobi Hall, Sean Jenness, Jay McKenzie, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Eilis Quinn, Sara Sheperd, Lael van Keuren, Sir Brock Warren and Hailee Kaleem Wright. Additional casting will be announced shortly.

The creative team includes director and two-time Tony Award nominee Moisés Kaufman, choreographer and two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones, and book writers Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. Ten-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele will also provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The score is by the team of Grammy and Emmy Award winner Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen, with additional material provided by Masi Asare and Mr. Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster, who was writing and living in the Five Points at the time.

The multi-award-winning creative team features set design by Allen Moyer, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, lighting by Donald Holder, and sound by Jon Weston.

4 new Broadway openings: Lehman Trilogy, Skeleton Crew, Paradise Square, How I Learned to Drive +

By Jonathan Mandell
June 7, 2021

The opening date of four new Broadway productions were announced this week, bringing the number to 32. See details in my Broadway 2021-2021 Season Preview Guide, organized chronologically by opening date: ... Paradise Square, a musical about the New York draft riots of 1863, starring Joaquina Kalukango (March 20).

Top 10 best theater Chicago in 2021: A Broadway tryout, all-star casts and a few picks you won’t expect +

by Chris Jones
December 8, 2021

“Paradise Square,” Broadway in Chicago: This pre-Broadway musical with a score by Jason Howland still has to find its focus as it weaves its complicated story of the New York neighborhood of Five Points. But to pull off an earnest out-of-town tryout of an epic, richly scored musical — a tough assignment, even in normal times — amid the COVID-19 crisis was an achievement that fully justifies its inclusion on this or any other list. The stacked-with-talent cast was a pleasure to welcome to our city. And come Tony Awards time in New York next spring, everyone will be talking about this performance by Joaquina Kalukango.

'Five Points' actress: 'We are lucky to be' in Chicago +

by Jeffrey Nelson
December 6, 2021

New Brunswick may be one of Canada’s smaller provinces (population 765,000), but its exports have been rich. Walter Pidgeon and Donald Sutherland have enriched the performing arts, and Moosehead Beer has enriched our culture. Actress Chilina Kennedy is the latest export from New Brunswick who has proved on a number of occasions that New Brunswick is still exporting riches.

She is Annie Lewis in the current production of “Paradise Square” at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, and she graciously agreed to take a few questions from Jeffrey Nelson:

You have twice been a major part of a major musical that is a true story, but the story in “Paradise Square” is a very different one from the one in the bio musical of Carole King in “Beautiful." What struck you as special and contrasting about “Paradise Square”?

Not many people know much about the area of New York City once called the Five Points. It was an intersection where five streets met and from that area came a unique culture, music and the birth of American tap dance. Similarly, most people know little about the New York draft riots of 1863, but they remain the largest civil and racially charged urban disturbance in American History. Most people I speak to seem to know much more about Carole King, her life and music. Most people who see "Beautiful" have at least one worn out copy of the record “Tapestry" near their bedside and everyone can recognize her hits. But there are still many surprises when it comes to how many number one hits she wrote and how prolific she was as a writer. These two stories could not be more different, but both are important for different reasons. Both are love stories and what strikes me as special about Paradise Square is the spirit of the community of the Five Points — the people in Nelly’s bar. They fight and intermarry and are almost divided by the events of 1863 but, as Nelly sings in Let It Burn, “We were safer separated, but love left us no choice."

This neighborhood of New York City, where “Paradise Square” is set really has a history. From its unusual ethnic mix, to the Civil War draft riots, to the death of Stephen Foster there in January of 1864, the extraordinary character of Five Points really stands out. Did you find yourself being drawn into the world and history of Five Points?

Honestly, I didn’t know much about it but I was most definitely drawn in as soon as my research began. I had heard some stories about the area, but these were typically sensationalized. I am reading the fabulous book called “Five Points” by Tyler Anbinder and it is an extraordinary collection of stories and history. I think it’s difficult for us North Americans in this day and age to appreciate the level of poverty and desperation in this area, unless we have experienced it. It must have made the culture and art found in the pubs and dance halls of the Five Points even more necessary.

Now, let’s switch cities to Chicago. I believe this is your third show in Chicago. In past conversations, you have said many good things about the Windy City, but let’s be specific. What have you found special in your experiences in Chicago?

Yes — it’s my third time! "Mamma Mia!”, "The Band’s Visit" and now "Paradise Square." I love this city! Most of all I love the waterfront area, the architecture and the culture. There are specific places I have fallen in love with, which always involves food and drink — Le Colonial on the Gold Coast, Cindy’s rooftop terrace and Urban Space, which is a couple blocks from the theatre. They have the best lobster rolls and vegan options! Also, The Green Mill. Of course.

Give me your review of Chicago as a theater city.

Chicago is a fantastic place to try out a new musical. The audiences are smart and experienced. The critics are thoughtful and constructive in their feedback. I think we are lucky to be here in a city so rich with theatre history, one that has given birth to so many extraordinary shows and theatre companies.

Moises Kaufman takes audiences to 'Paradise' +

by Jerry Nunn
December 3, 2021

Paradise Square is a new musical that opened in Chicago last month at the James M. Nederlander Theatre. This is based on a true story set in New York City in 1863, when Black and Irish immigrants lived together in a lower Manhattan community during the draft riots.

Out director Moises Kaufman brings a strong resume to this new endeavor, not only for directing but writing numerous plays. He has a long list of credits, including his Tony-nominated revival of Torch Song and The Heiress, the latter with Jessica Chastain. He is best known for creating The Laramie Project with other members of Tectonic Theater Project; he is a founding member of the company along with his husband, Jeffrey LaHoste.

Windy City Times: Tell our readers what drew you to the story of Paradise Square in the first place.

Moises Kaufman: To me, what was really exciting was to try to tell the story of this place that people know very little about. This was a place where social constructs were being constructed that took everybody by surprise.

The fact that they were still trying to have this life together felt like an attempt at the democratic social construct that we are still struggling with today. I really wanted to live in that bar and see what it did.

WCT: How would you describe this show, in a nutshell?

MK: It is a true story about a group of Americans who lived in New York City during the Civil War and tried to live by their own rules.

WCT: What were the challenges of developing Paradise Square in Chicago?

MK: The biggest challenge was COVID. It is very hard to direct a show when you are always wearing a mask.

WCT: Where did you find the lead Joaquina Kalukango, who plays Nelly O'Brien?

MK: That was our producer Garth H. Drabinsky. He found her through our friends in casting.

WCT: The song she sings, "Let It Burn," is a show-stopping moment—much as "Defying Gravity," [which] happens before intermission in Wicked. Why did you choose to have the song land toward the end of the second act?

MK: That is a good question. Honestly, that is where we needed that story point. Musicals are done in a very organic process. With this song, it was all part of that process.

WCT: What changes would you like to make in New York?

MK: I think we would like to keep focusing on the characters that the audiences are really connecting with, for example, Nelly. We want to continue to do that and do it well.

WCT: Tell our readers about the LGBTQ+ plot point in Paradise Square.

MK: In this time period there were two people that helped in the Underground Railroad that happened to be two lesbians. It is a very moving thing to see them try to help people get through their journey with the Underground Railroad.

WCT: I have a few questions about your career. What did you learn from making The Laramie Project?

MK: What is interesting about The Laramie Project is that much like Paradise Square it is also about a community. Both communities go through very different things, but those are the similarities between the two plays. There are individual characters that you follow, but you are also watching a group of people trying to live their lives in a difficult space.

WCT: Have you spent much time in Chicago in the past?

MK: Yes, I directed I Am My Own Wife at the Goodman Theatre so was there before the Broadway debut.

WCT: Have you watched Jessica Chastain play Tammy Faye in the movie yet?

MK: Yes—how brilliant she was! Wasn't she just stunning? I was just so riveted by that performance. I want her to win an Oscar for that.

WCT: I've got a feeling Jessica will be nominated. Describe the moment you received the 2016 National Medal of Arts.

MK: It was a culmination of many years of work. It was wonderful because it came from President Barack Obama's hands. Obama was a president that I respected a great deal. Obama was also the president that passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act with legislation. That made it even more moving to me that I got it from him.

WCT: Well, let me take a second and thank you for all you have done for the LGBTQ+ community with the arts and your work.

MK: Jerry, that is very kind of you. Thank you so much for telling me that. I appreciate it.

WCT: What projects do you have planned after Paradise Square?

MK: I am doing a new play called Here There Are Blueberries. It begins at the La Jolla Playhouse in the summer of 2022.

There is also a play I have written about Venezuela called The Adventures of Juan Blanchard. It is about the destruction of my native country. Those are my two big upcoming projects…

WCT: That sounds very personal. Well, I hope Paradise Square comes back to Chicago on a tour in the future.

MK: From your mouth to God's ears!

Take a trip to Paradise Square by Sunday, Dec. 5, in Chicago at James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; or purchase tickets for the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York for previews beginning Feb. 22, 2022. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com or ParadiseSquareMusical.com for more information.

In Chicago, the musical ‘Paradise Square’ nears its big pre-Broadway opening in a changed world +

by Chris Jones
October 28, 2021

Producer Garth Drabinsky sweeps his hand across a recording studio in Midtown Manhattan. “You see the fiddler?” he asks. “Maybe the best fiddle player on Broadway.”

He shouts toward his videographer, whose job it is to seed the songs of a risky new $11.5 million musical called “Paradise Square” into the zeitgeist: “Be sure you get the harp.”

He leans in again: “She’s just a sensational harpist.”

There is the briefest of pauses as he answers another unasked question.

“Actually, this whole orchestra? Crème de la crème. Crème de la crème.”

The actors begin to sing a stirring anthem with roots in 19th century Manhattan but clear contemporary relevance following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It’s called “Breathe Easy.”

“Take a look at those lyrics. Alicia Keys should take this song and find a duet partner,” Drabinsky says, sliding over his script as he stabs at the words with his finger. “I think this is going to become a hymn for the world.”

Just that.

Producers like the 71-year-old Canadian impresario used to walk tall, exhibiting their natural gifts for promotion, storytelling and self-belief, micromanaging every last detail as they reveled in not just their competence but their own expansive personalities. The smartest of them, and Drabinsky indisputably was among that number, made sure they stood for top quality: huge companies, epic production values, ambitious themes, emotional journeys, rich spectacles, colossal advertising budgets, blowout opening night parties, not so much shows as must-see theatrical events. Always for all demographics. Great producers would rather open a vein than admit their show was for one particular subset of humanity when all could be buying tickets.

Or, as Drabisnky succinctly puts it, “I only know how to do shows this way.”

Just as well, perhaps.

In Drabinsky’s case, his producing chops have resulted in famous, lauded productions of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Show Boat,” “Ragtime” and “Fosse,” among others, along with the restoration of what is now known as the Lyric Theatre on Broadway, the home of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” And if one man could be said to be the father of the Chicago Theater District in the city’s Loop, Drabinsky is the closest to that guy.

He put Donny Osmond in “Joseph” at the Chicago Theatre, running it successfully for so long that Osmond moved to Wilmette and put his kids in school here. He restored the former Oriental Theatre (now Nederlander) to shimmering glory, snagging sponsorship from Ford Motor Company and sparking subsequent restorations of the Cadillac Palace Theatre and the former Shubert Theatre (now CIBC), restoring nighttime traffic to the Loop to the delight of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Along with Cameron Mackintosh, Drabinsky taught Chicago how to market long-running shows, to insist on Broadway quality for its signature attractions and embrace its status as the capital of Midwest live entertainment.

“Chicago,” he says, “always has been very hospitable to me.” The reality is that Chicago owes Drabinsky more than Drabinsky owes Chicago.

But Broadway has changed by its own design and the proud street has been shrunk by dint of near-impossible circumstances, mostly beyond its own control.

Producers mostly have been stripped of their personalities, replaced either by corporations or naturally cautious individuals wary of becoming a target by weighing in on something not to be weighed in on, and thus talking only off the record, carefully parsing every word, hyperbole replaced by fear. Instead of the boss pushing a project to a reporter, one superlative at a time, faceless marketing consultants have taken their place with data-driven, social-media strategies, shrouded in tech-driven anonymity.

And, in a minority of cases, producers have behaved badly, allowing rigor to morph into abuse and thus upending their own profession.

Drabinsky, in fact, went to prison for fraud and forgery, following a 2009 conviction in Canada, alongside his former partner Myron Gottlieb, for operating a phony accounting system for his box offices and defrauding investors of some $500 million Canadian dollars. In essence, he kept two sets of books, a technique, it has been noted, not unlike that of Max Bialystock in “The Producers.”

Broadway’s focus of late has been on protections and better conditions for its workers; Drabinsky’s crimes mostly defrauded the already rich, meaning they haven’t exactly been at the center of progressive Broadway’s current slate of concerns. Still, Drabinsky was for a while unable to travel to the United States on fear of being arrested as a fugitive. And the rich have long memories. Sources say careful attention was paid to ensure “Paradise Square” had its $11.5 million budget in place.

It did. Thus, improbably, extraordinarily, remarkably, Drabinsky is back.

Time served. U.S. authorities fully satisfied.

Demonstrably, he is unbowed.

Not by changing times. Not by inflated costs. Not even by COVID-19 and its making the already daunting prospect of going out of town to create a new musical from scratch infinitely more challenging. No other producer has tried to create a massive new Broadway musical — with a cast of 38 and an orchestra of 14 — in these circumstances, let alone bring everyone “out of town,” in the New York parlance. Drabinsky’s peers have just been trying to stay alive.

Not only has Drabinsky returned to the theater he restored (the James M. Nederlander Theatre), but his “Paradise Square” begins tryout preview performances in Chicago Nov. 2 and opens Nov. 17. Its March 20 Broadway opening is set.

Unlike most musicals, the show is not based on a hit movie nor on the life and work of a pop star with a built-in fan base. Already it has had many gestations and artistic contributions but it is, in essence, the 1860s story of the people of Five Points, a depressed but culturally vital neighborhood in Lower Manhattan.

Located close to what is now known as Chinatown, Five Points was where poor Irish immigrants and free Black Americans coexisted in what the show posits as a unique, cross-cultural moment, where Irish step dancing joined with tap (a theme that was also part of the original “Riverdance” show) and interracial relationships flourished. In “Paradise Square,” Five Points functions as a kind of fleeting nirvana, a vista of what America might have been, only for the racism and ugliness of the post-Civil War era in America to effect its inevitable, subsequent destruction.

It so happens that Stephen Foster, the composer of such songs as “Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” died in Five Points as a penniless alcoholic, just before the Draft Riots that became central to the show. It is with Foster’s music that “Paradise Square” began.

In the first version of the show, penned by Larry Kirwan, Foster was a character and the show, known as “Hard Times: An American Musical” was built around his music. That show was produced off-off Broadway in 2012 and it was how Drabinsky first became involved.

But it quickly became apparent that Foster’s music alone wouldn’t sustain what Drabinsky wanted to do, given that he saw in this piece something of a precursor to his other two epics of American historical change, “Showboat” and “Ragtime.” Before another staging at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2019, he brought in new A-list people: the composer Jason Howland, the director Moisés Kaufman, the writers Craig Lucas, Marcus Gardley and Christina Anderson, the choreographer Bill T. Jones. Some of those creatives have come and gone through different versions and others have taken over their work: the complex credit in Chicago will read, book by Anderson, Gardley, Lucas and Kirwan; music by Howland; lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare; additional music by Kirwan inspired in part of Foster; directed by Kaufman and choreographed by Jones. Royalty checks will be split a lot of different ways.

“We’ve all been working this show for eight years,” says Kaufman. “Initially, Foster’s music was more present in the musical and so was his story. But it became apparent to us that the more interesting story here was in that saloon in ‘Paradise Square,’ the social experiment that was going on in Five Points and people trying to survive in that environment. In the end, Foster became a secondary character. What we see now is a group of outcasts who generated their own social contract, at a time when social contracts were nonexistent and, over the course of the show, we see that contract break down and have to face the reality of the outside world.”

And, although some of Foster’s music survived, there is now an original score.

“Frankly,” Howland says, “many of Foster’s songs were minstrel songs. The language now is untenable. And these songs are not the right songs to ask Black actors to sing. He stole this music and profited from its ideas. Foster might have been an important figure in American music, but we’re not going to get very far singing, ‘Doo dah, Do dah.’ Instead, we now have a score that gets harmonically more complex as the show gets more thematically complex. We have songs that talk about pain, loss, abuse and suffering, about the unfairness of poverty. But we’ve also tried to juxtapose the cultural narratives. You might get one person playing a fiddler, another a tambourine, another the bones. Musical elements and ideas come from both Irish culture and African-American culture. There was protest dance and protest music on all sides. We are aware of what’s at stake in terms of the stories we are telling and how we are telling them; it’s both a unique opportunity and a unique responsibility.”

COVID-19 has, without question, made everything harder. There is a rigorous (and costly) in-house testing regimen and a mask protocol. Just to satisfy COVID protocols, Drabinsky had to hire a staff of medical techs and jump through countless other hoops.

“Rehearsing in masks is difficult,” said Chilina Kennedy, the Canadian star playing one of the lead roles. “We’re in theater. We’re not accountants. But we can take our masks off when we are performing and everyone has been very, very careful. And, luckily, this is a very warm group of people. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I feel like we can get there.”

Kaufman says the whole experience has been like “trying to build a gigantic skyscraper in five weeks.”

“When we first got back into the room,” he says, “all of a sudden there was a room full of people, there was a sense of trepidation. Actors need to breathe to do what they do. I’m always trying to talk to large groups of actors and the masks get in the way of your ability to see people’s faces. It has not been easy.”

“The thing I love about this musical is that it now speaks to this moment.” says Joaquina Kalukango, a recent Tony Award nominee for “Slave Play” and now the star of “Paradise Square.” “Honestly, I didn’t think I would come back to the theater but then this wonderful musical came into my life.”

“This is a time for Black people when we just can’t catch a breath,” Kalukango says. “This cast is just so courageous.”

“The show looks back on the past in order to make the present and future better,” Howland says. “Isn’t that what we all are trying to do?”

That might be an understatement.

Weeks later, the company is crowded into a basement rehearsal room in Chicago, testing regimens complete, masks coming and going as the rules require. The show has, not unlike “Ragtime,” two distinct ensembles, one white and one Black. On this day, the Black members of the company are rehearsing “Breathe Easy.” The stresses of the song, and of the moment, are apparent. But the harmony abides. The mutual support is palpable.

Drabinsky now has an uphill battle to coax back audiences and sell tickets. There are discount ducats and even the promise of a free dinner with every purchase, all strategies designed to help Chicago audiences take a chance on an unknown show, and propel something forward.

But the show’s biggest asset surely is the belief of its old-school producer, a man with a compliment for every artist in the room, a stake in their futures, a determination to return to Broadway at a level no less than the one before his prior exit. And, above all, an unshakable conviction that this one show can change a lousy world.

“Looking back eight or nine months ago, I think nobody really could have anticipated just how hard this would be,” he says, smiling. “But I thought to myself, well, there sure won’t be many other new shows opening now. Not like this one. So why not?”

The World According to Garth: Returning to Chicago with Paradise Square, a Pre-Broadway Race Musical +

by Dennis Polkow
October 28, 2021

It’s a warm fall Saturday morning in downtown Chicago. Horns are blaring. Pedestrians scurry by. Few notice that the rolling lights of the marquee of the Nederlander Theatre are on so early in the day, impressively illuminating the “Paradise Square” moniker.

In the alley behind the theater, huge, isolated pieces of black scenery temporarily block easy passage, gleaming in the bright light of day. Escorted through the stage door, a production assistant guides anyone entering, whether cast, crew or curious critic, to the COVID test station. A quick, long swab up each nostril; results in ten minutes.

Going into the theater while waiting for results, a crew is onstage putting together pieces of what is obviously a complex set. “It will take them another week to fully load in,” volunteers the assistant. A cast member introduces himself and talks about the dance warmups needed for the show. “You’re COVID-free!” comes the verdict.

Descending deep within the bowels of the building, a small elevator takes us, it is said, to the lowest level of the theater. Large, colorful framed posters of past productions line the basement walls.

Entering the large rehearsal room, it is surprising that it is so jam-packed with people for such a remote and isolated part of the building. Cast members are standing, but relaxed in places marked by masking tape of multiple colors. A dozen seated people surround them on two sides, some writing on notepads, others typing on laptops. Two black spinet pianos and a drum set take up the far wall. Every person in the room is masked, including cast, until or unless someone has a line or a song lead.

Even with a mask, producer Garth Drabinsky at a table in the center of the room is clearly recognizable with his bushy hair, now gray. We share a quick hello since we had done an interview in this same building twenty-three years earlier for the opening “Ragtime,” which Drabinsky produced, and he also oversaw a $30 million restoration of this theater. He invites me to join him, next to a production assistant taking copious notes by hand on everything that is transpiring.

The stage manager calls order and director Moises Kaufman begins energetically walking the cast through the final scene of Drabinsky’s new show, “Paradise Square,”verbally dissecting every element. The dialogue between the Black and white cast is sometimes volatile but the working atmosphere is collegial and familial. Cast members raise issues and make suggestions. Egos are left at the door. Lines viewed as extraneous are cut. When meaning is unclear, lines are changed. Show composer Jason Howland is accompanying the cast at the piano and thanks an ensemble member for a spontaneous suggestion tried and adapted about paring back the chorus for one verse of a song to heighten the buildup of the next verse.

The premise of the show is a pre-Civil War Irish and African-American neighborhood that existed in New York prior to the 1863 Draft Riots.

Kaufman warns the cast of a “director cry alert.” “I can’t get through the finale without crying.” When Joaquina Kalukango movingly starts into the show’s climactic number a few feet in front of us, Drabinsky turns and whispers, “She’s Juilliard-trained.”

As lunch is called, we head to Drabinsky’s dressing room. The familiar cane he used in the nineties due to childhood polio has since given way to a walker. An assistant is nearby but Drabinsky takes every deliberate step himself. A steaming bowl of soup served in patterned china is waiting for him with a few crackers. “This is my only chance for sustenance.”

“It’s still a work-in-progress, but hopefully you get a sense of it,” says Drabinsky, settling in. “There is another ending that we had that’s just as emotional.” Has a final decision been made about which to use? “No.”

Has Chicago changed, I wondered, since Drabinsky was last here in the late 1990s, laying the groundwork for what became Broadway in Chicago?

“The city is still architecturally glorious, the people are still Midwestern-hospitable. The integrity of the population, I think, is at hand. I love this city. You know, I would move here in a second. If there was any other city I would live in North America [aside from Drabinsky’s native Toronto], it would be Chicago.

“The Irish and African-American history here and the demographic of the city is incredible and perfect for the show. I don’t know of a better city to reflect what the show is about than Chicago.

“Chicago popped up in ‘Show Boat.’ The Palmer House and this and that. It just had a history. The two years I did ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” here with Donny Osmond. ‘Aspects of Love’ at Lyric Opera. All of that and then doing ‘Show Boat’ at the Auditorium Theatre.

“I used to own the Chicago Theatre when it was a movie theater, because I used to own two-thirds of the movie theaters in Chicago. Cineplex Odeon and I bought Plitt Theaters. My history with this city goes back to 1985.”

When asked about what else has changed since Drabinsky worked here regularly, Drabinsky takes a deep breath. I thought he might address how the rather public fall of his once mega-company Livent or his 2009 conviction and subsequent prison time for fraud and forgery had changed him, but he cast his net more widely.

“America has changed. The world has changed. America has gone through incredible turbulence since I cornered the rights to this piece in 2013.

“No one could have been prescient enough to see the immigration formula blow up and see America turning deaf ears on immigrants during the Trump era.

“Then to see the hideousness of racism raise its profile and to watch the aftermath of George Floyd as if it was 1965 again with protests and marches in the streets such as leading up to 1968 in Chicago. I had lived through that experience in my lifetime and thought I would never have to live it again. But there it was.

“And then the pandemic. You know, I’ve lived through bank failures, I’ve lived through wars. But I hadn’t lived through the world shutting itself down. And all that did was bring up for me, the world that I had to live through when I was a young kid when I had polio.

“And to hear the insanity of the rightwing response of ‘No vaccination! No vaccination!’ Are you kidding me? God has allowed a vaccination to materialize in such a short time to heal the world, and you’re turning your backs on that? When I lived in a polio isolation hospital when I was three-and-a-half, where I lived with kids in iron lungs who were being wheeled out every night three, four, five at a time, dead the next morning? And you are even questioning for a millisecond whether or not you are going to be blessed with getting a vaccination? The insanity of that is simply incomprehensible.

“What has changed? The entire population seems to have changed. That’s what has changed. There has been an attempt to rip down the entire fabric of the country. Nothing left standing. When you start dealing with voter rights legislation and are not able to get unanimity on legislation for the basic tenets of life when there is such economic disparity in the country. To watch this country come to the precipice of anarchy, to the precipice of losing its hard-fought democracy. Having lived so much in America over the years and watching it happen from outside the country just tore my heart apart.”

A key change and culprit in assisting all of this, as Drabinsky sees it, has been social media. “There is so much more to life than a phone, than a computer screen. Sitting in a concert hall and listening to the majesty of a symphony orchestra is worth a year of being on Facebook. This manipulation of a population of kids who don’t know how to communicate anymore, who can’t talk to each other. This is what pushes me to want to produce theater to get people to think, to reflect. To be provoked to conversation into change, into understanding where they are in respect to the historical struggle of the evolution of culture, the evolution of a population.”

When workshopping “Paradise Square” in early 2019 in Berkeley, California, Drabinsky says the Shubert family came to see it and wanted to bring it to New York. “We made plans to do that in spring 2020 but then, boom. The pandemic hit. Not knowing when Broadway was going to reopen, I said maybe we should be coming to one other place before New York. I remembered the embrace of the city of my work in the past and thought, what about Chicago? What about my theater? I made the decision to come to Chicago in December of last year and then the Barrymore Theatre opened for us around June. So really Chicago predated the final opportunity to come to New York.”

Given all that has transpired, what was it like for Drabinsky to return to a theater he restored twenty-three years later?

“It was a completely surreal experience. What can I tell you?” Did Drabinsky have to pinch himself? “Yeah. Beyond. I said to my cast the first day that it’s very seldom that a cast gets to work with a producer who also built the theater. In this day and age, that doesn’t happen very often.

“And the diversity of this show, its scope, its drama, its intensity, its emotion: everything that ‘Ragtime’ was, this is as well. This is the most powerful show that I have had my name on. It’s certainly of the same genre as ‘Ragtime.’ I think it will go down in that same legacy of show. I can’t say more than that until you see it. But I think you’ll feel it.”

“Paradise Square” runs November 2-December 5 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph, broadwayinchicago.com.

‘Paradise Square’ gives a history lesson from ‘the margins’ +

by Miriam Di Nunzio
September 30, 2021

If you’re never heard of Five Points, New York, or the draft riots of 1863, you’re in for a potent history lesson courtesy of a new Broadway-bound musical opening in Chicago this fall.

The Five Points of this musical was a real place — one of the poorest and run-down tenements in 19th century Lower Manhattan (the same gritty setting for Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”). By all historical accounts, it was not a pretty site, but it was, for a brief moment in time, a place where, in spite of the hardship and the racism of Civil War-era America, two diverse cultures lived and thrived together. Until some of the bloodiest riots in U.S. history raged for four days in 1863.

That’s the setup for “Paradise Square,” receiving its pre-Broadway engagement at the James M. Nederlander Theatre Nov. 2-Dec. 5. (“Paradise Square” has been in development for the past decade and was produced in January 2019 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.)

As the war between the states boils over, newly arrived Irish immigrants and free-born Black Americans and others who had escaped slavery in the South are living and working together amid the worst of conditions, but making the best life they could. Two cultures melded. Blacks and Whites married, had children, worked hard and believed in the American dream. Dance halls and bars dotted the neighborhood (the show’s title is one of the local watering holes, and setting for most of the action) and dance battles broke out. Irish step dancing and African Juba obliterated genre lines, ultimately birthing tap dance. And the music of Stephen Foster (a character in the play) set the tone for the milieu.

The show, conceived by Larry Kirwan and based on his 2012 musical “Hard Times: An American Musical,” has morphed into a wholly new iteration from the Berkeley Rep version, with a book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan, who also contributed to Jason Howland’s score, along with Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones created the powerhouse choreography

The musical also marks the big-time return of Tony Award-winning producer Garth Drabinsky, one of the leading Broadway impresarios of the 1990s, who was convicted of fraud and served time in a Canadian prison (all charges in the U.S. were subsequently dismissed). Drabinksy is no stranger to the Chicago theater scene; his now-defunct Livent production company brought “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with Donny Osmond in the title role to the Chicago Theatre for a record-breaking run. It was Drabinsky’s Livent that brought the battered Oriental Theatre (now the aforementioned Nederlander) back to life in 1998, ushering the rebirth of Chicago’s downtown theater district.

“I said to this cast, of all the shows I’ve done, this is the first time I’ve come into rehearsal with the script and music being so exquisitely sculpted and prepared, and frankly it’s because we’ve had the time in the last 18 months not to grieve and be depressed but to refine and make better and finally bring to fruition the essence of everything we were doing,” Drabinsky said of working on “Paradise Square” amid a pandemic, and his fervent desire to tell the Five Points story.

Moises Kaufman, the director of “Paradise Square,” added, “I’ve lived in Manhattan for 30 years and I never knew that Five Points had that kind of intensity,”

“I was very taken in by the story,” Kaufman continued. “In my work I’m interested in the intersection of the personal and political, whether it’s [Kaufman’s other stage works] ‘The Laramie Project” or ‘I Am My Own Wife’ or “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,’ I’m really interested in this idea of what happens when what society deems to be ‘the other’ becomes the recorder of history. What happens if we look at history through the eyes of these people who were at the margins of a certain culture? What do we see? … I immediately felt like this [show] was something that I wanted to do.”

That Five Points existed in this manner 150 years ago is something Kaufman said should resonate with all who encounter the production. “What’s encouraging and sad is that a lot of what’s happening in our streets is happening on our stage,” Kaufman mused. “... And we started doing [this production] way before Black Lives Matter.”

The people of Paradise Square (it too is a real place) co-existed because they had to in order to survive, he said. The violent Civil War draft riots, though not the core of the show, hammer that home, as do the show’s powerful anthems of anger, hope, despair and promise.

“The riots (led by working-class Irish immigrants) went north, uptown, because they wanted to hurt the rich people who could avoid the draft altogether by paying $300,” Kaufman said, the fee signifying an out-of-reach sum for immigrants (Blacks were not considered citizens and therefore not subject to the draft). “Then they came back downtown to attack African Americans” as well as white abolitionists and business owners.

Kaufman is adamant that the show does not romanticize the subject matter. “This is not ‘Camelot,’ ” he said with a chuckle.

The production also exemplifies the need for increased diversity on theater stages and also behind the scenes (“Hamilton” comparisons have been made).

“Our team is Black, Latinx. It’s exciting,” said composer/lyricist Masi Asare, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she teaches a course in musical theater history. “There are people of a lot of backgrounds on the show and I have to say it’s an interesting time to be a Black woman writer of musicals. The projects I signed on to and have been really excited to join are those where there has already been a long history of having women in the room, people of different races in the room; and that is certainly the case with this project.”

Asare said she was tapped to help with major rewrites this past year, lending a key Black voice to the Black voices of the show, in addition to bringing her historical perspective to the Stephen Foster character.

“Audiences can now very clearly see how [Foster] took up material from Black artists that he met and repackaged it as his own in ways that he and the music business at the time profited from those uncredited contributions of Black artists.”

Added Kaufman, “The musical takes a look at the social conflicts that are still the basis today of how we live in America. These people at this time and place believed that some of these social contracts could actually work. … They saw a new kind of world that was possible. It’s an exploration of what it took to create what they created, not just an ode to what they did.”

Dean chats with Tony Award-winning producer Garth H. Drabinsky +

by Dean Richards
September 27, 2021

WGN Entertainment Critic Dean Richards chats with Tony Award-winning producer Garth H. Drabinsky a day after the Tony Awards returned following a one-year hiatus.

WATCH THE VIDEO

Dean Richards’ Sunday Morning | September 26th, 2021 +

by Dean Richards
September 26, 2021

Legendary producer Garth Drabinsky talks about his new production ‘Paradise Square.’ The production, eight years in the making, will be in Chicago on pre-Broadway from November 2 – December 5. (Interview begins around 60:00)

LISTEN

Drabinsky Returning to Chicago +

By Chris Jones
May 18, 2021

Garth Drabinsky is coming back to Chicago. The Canadian showbiz mogul who wrestled the pivotal 1998 restoration of the Oriental Theatre, staged epic Chicago productions of “Show Boat” and “Ragtime” and put Donny Osmond in “Joseph” to the delight of audiences here for years — is reigniting high-profile theater in Chicago this fall with a new Broadway-bound musical, “Paradise Square.”

The piece, which uses both original music and the songs of Stephen Foster, focuses on the Lower Manhattan neighborhood of Five Points, positing that its 1863 blend of Irish immigrants and Black Americans, both escapees from slavery and free-born individuals, was a singular fusion wherein two oppressed groups intermingled, intermarried and shared their music, dance and culture.

The show features a book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan. Music, including both original songs and Foster adaptations, is by Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. The director is Moises Kaufman (“I Am My Own Wife”), choreography is by Bill T. Jones (”Spring Awakening”), and musical staging is by Graciela Daniele, who famously worked with Drabinsky and director Frank Galati on “Ragtime.”

Performances are scheduled to begin Nov. 2 and play through Dec. 5 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre (formerly the Oriental Theatre), 24 W. Randolph St. Individual tickets go on sale June 8.

“I am delighted to back,” Drabinsky said Monday in a telephone interview. “Without the return of the theater, great cities like New York and Chicago are just not the same.”

Drabinsky said that he expects the show to move directly to Broadway, opening early in 2022.

“Paradise Square,” an early version of which was seen in 2018 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, represents the return of one of North America’s most ebullient producers, a careful studier of audiences and a famously intellectual showman of the old school.

“My life has been dedicated to the entertainment business,” Drabinsky said. “It is something I always have been compelled to do.”

Chicago was a clear beneficiary: Drabinsky’s restoration of the Oriental (with the help of public funds) reignited interest in the Loop theater district, resulting in similar work at the Cadillac Palace Theatre and other downtown venues. Drabinsky’s shows made the case in the 1990s that Chicago could and would support long runs of several months, and sometimes years, buoying the fortunes of downtown restaurants and parking lots.

Coming during the fall recovery, the five weeks of “Paradise Square” represent a bold new bet on the Loop’s live-entertainment fortunes, fully in line with Drabinsky’s past risk-taking efforts. This will be the city’s first pre-Broadway production since the COVID-19 closures, offering a restoration of a crucial Chicago franchise and economic generator.

“When we were derailed by the pandemic, the man never lost his passion or his commitment to the project,” Kaufman said of his producer. “He is trying to do something here both interesting and daring.”

Drabinsky said he was convinced the demographics of Chicago, a city whose culture was formed in no small part by Irish immigrants and Black Americans, would embrace the show and be compelled by the largely unknown story of a neighborhood that promised hope for the future, albeit long deferred.

“The Oriental is incredibly special to me,” he said. “And we could not be coming to a more fitting city.”

‘Paradise Square,’ a Broadway-bound musical, set to open in Chicago in November +

By Darel Jevens
May 18, 2021

Chicago’s job of presenting new musicals on their way to Broadway — halted last year by the pandemic — is set to resume in November with a show about a key moment in the history of Irish Americans and African Americans.

“Paradise Square,” set at a saloon in the Lower Manhattan slum of Five Points in 1863, will run at the James M. Nederlander Theatre Nov. 2-Dec. 5, producers announced Tuesday. It focuses on the shared lives of African Americans — some free born, some fleeing slavery — and freshly arrived Irish immigrants in that New York neighborhood.

The casting and Broadway plans will be announced later.

The musical is directed by two-time Tony nominee Moisés Kaufman (“I Am My Own Wife,” “The Laramie Project”), with choreography by two-time Tony winner Bill T. Jones (“Spring Awakening,” “Fela!”). The writing team includes Larry Kirwan, lead singer of the Celtic rock band Black 47, along with veteran playwrights Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley and Craig Lucas.

The score, by Grammy winner Jason Howland (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”) and Nathan Tysen (with contributions by Kirwan and Masi Asare), is built around the songs of Five Points resident Stephen Foster as well as original works.

Garth Drabinsky, the high-profile Canadian impresario who restored and reopened the Nederlander Theatre (then the Oriental) in 1998, is producing “Paradise Square.” Drabinsky was a major player in Chicago theater in the ‘90s, bringing in long-running productions of “Show Boat,” “Ragtime” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamboat.”

“Paradise Square” first was staged in January 2019 by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California.

Broadway-bound tuner 'Paradise Square' set to premiere in November in Chicago +

By Barbara Vitello
May 18, 2021

Fourteen months after the pandemic shuttered live theater, the Chicago to Broadway pipeline reopens in November with Paradise Square, a new musical whose impressive pedigree includes director Moisés Kaufman (I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project) and Tony Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!).

Performances run Nov. 2 through Dec. 5 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago. The opening marks Chicago's first pre-Broadway run since the COVID-19 pandemic forced theaters to close.

Set during the Civil War in 1863 New York, Paradise Square tells the story of the people of Five Points, a lower Manhattan slum where freeborn Black Americans and escaped slaves lived and worked with Irish immigrants.

Through their shared cultural heritage, expressed in dance contests at neighborhood dance halls, tap dancing -- a combination of Juba dance and Irish step dancing -- evolved. However, that racial and cultural harmony was shattered by the bloody July 1863 riots sparked by the establishment of a federal draft.

The score is by Jason Howland (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) and Nathan Tysen (Amelie) with additional material by Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding), Larry Kirwan, the lead singer for Black 47 as well as songs by Stephen Foster, who lived in Five Points at the time.

Kirwan also contributed to the book co-written by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand) and Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza).

Tickets are available for groups of 10 or more at (312) 977-1710 or by emailing groupsales@broadwayinchicago.com. Paradise Square will be a part of the new Broadway In Chicago subscription launching in August. Individual tickets for Paradise Square go on sale June 8. See broadwayinchicago.com for more information.

Garth Drabinsky-Produced ‘Paradise Square’ Musical Sets Pre-Broadway Run In Chicago +

By Greg Evans
May 18, 2021

Paradise Square, the original musical from a creative team that includes Moisés Kaufman, Bill T. Jones, Craig Lucas and Black 47 singer Larry Kirwan, will begin a limited, month-long pre-Broadway engagement in Chicago on Nov. 2.

Casting and details about a Broadway engagement will be announced shortly.

The musical, set in the notorious Civil War-era Lower Manhattan Five Points slum, is produced by Garth H. Drabinsky, marking a return of the once ubiquitous Canadian theater executive. Drabinsky, whose previous Broadway productions included Kiss of the Spider Woman, Show Boat, Ragtime and Fosse, is teamed on Paradise Square with longtime colleague Peter LeDonne, who co-produces.

Paradise Square will be the first major pre-Broadway show to open in Chicago after the pandemic shutdown. The musical will play from Nov. 2 – Dec. 5 at Broadway In Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre.

As described by the production, the musical is set in 1863 New York City “amid the dangerous streets and crumbling tenement houses of the Five Points, the notorious 19th-century Lower Manhattan slum. Irish immigrants escaping the devastation of the Great Famine settled alongside free-born Black Americans and those who escaped slavery, arriving by means of the Underground Railroad. The Irish, relegated at that time to the lowest rung of America’s social status, received a sympathetic welcome from their Black neighbors (who enjoyed only slightly better treatment in the burgeoning industrial-era city). The two communities co-existed, intermarried, raised families, and shared their cultures in this unlikeliest of neighborhoods.”

The description continues, “The amalgamation between the communities took its most exuberant form with raucous dance contests on the floors of the neighborhood bars and dance halls. It is here in the Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba. But this racial equilibrium would come to a sharp and brutal end when President Lincoln’s need to institute the first Federal Draft to support the Union Army would incite the deadly NY Draft Riots of July 1863.”

The creative team features direction by Kaufman (I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project), choreography by Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!), book by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Lucas and Kirwan. Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, Once on This Island) will provide the musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The score is by the team of Jason Howland (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) and Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting), with additional material provided by Masi Asare and Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster, who was writing and living in the Five Points at the time.

The world premiere of Paradise Square was produced in January 2019 by Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The musical is based on Hard Times, originally conceived by Mr. Kirwan, which was originally presented Off Broadway in 2012.

WLS-TV, ABC 7, CHICAGO +

May 18, 2021

Transcript: “So many of Chicago's famous theatres have been closed because of the pandemic but now the theater scene is coming back. The Nederlander Theatre will put on Paradise Square on November 2. it will be the first major pre-Broadway show to raise the curtain in Chicago since the theater shut down. The full Broadway in Chicago lineup will be announced June 1st. Performances start in October.” 

WLS-TV, ABC 7, CHICAGO, EYEWITNESS NEWS AT 4 PM +

May 18, 2021

Transcript: “The live theater scene is bouncing back after the pandemic closed curtains. The musical "Paradise Square" is making its debut later this year. Karen Jordan shows why this might be a sign that The Loop is coming back to life. Jordan: The pandemic darkened the theater district but with the city relaxing rules on indoor gatherings, lights will shine again. Broadway in Chicago is making a comeback later this year and one of the first productions is "Paradise Square," a Civil War-era musical set in New York about racial harmony undone by the war. It will have a five-week run before it moves to Broadway. Drabinsky: “Outside of Broadway, there is no more important city in America for live theater than Chicago.” Theaters will be at full capacity and patrons will be required to wear masks.”

WMAQ-TV, NBC 5, CHICAGO +

May 18, 2021

Transcript: “Some exciting news for theatre lovers! Live performances are coming back to the stage in Chicago this fall with a special pre-Broadway premiere. [MUSICAL EXCERPT PLAYS]. I want to keep on hearing this. Isn’t it incredible? The new musical Paradise Square will debut with a limited engagement from November 2 to December 5 at Broadway in Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre. The show is set in in a New York City slum in 1863 during the Civil War. It tells the story of Irish immigrants who settled alongside Black Americans as they shared cultures and raised their families together. I want to see this!”

WGN MORNING NEWS, CHICAGO +

May 18, 2021

Transcript: “Good morning. We've got some big theater news breaking this morning Broadway in Chicago has just announced the first major pre-Broadway show to open since the pandemic shut everything down last year. It’s going to be the new musical Paradise Square. These are some still pictures from their 2019 try out at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. I’m told that this is the story of New York's Five Points neighborhood in 1863, where Irish and African American cultures meet. The show will run November 2 through December 5 at the Nederlander Theatre, formerly the Oriental Theater downtown on Randolph Street.”

WGN-TV, CHICAGO +

May 18, 2021

Transcript: “Paradise Square will have a one-month tryout at the Nederlander Theatre on Randolph Street starting in November. It'll tell the story of Irish immigrants in New York City back in the 1860's. These are pictures from the production's tryout at the Berkeley Repertory Theater back in 2019. It is going to run from November 2 through December 5. Individual tickets will go on sale June 8th CDC state and city covid protocols. will be observed.”

WGN-AM RADIO, CHICAGO +

May 18, 2021

Transcript: Dean Richards: It's a big deal that a pre-Broadway show is coming to the downtown theater district. That right there, that’s a huge deal because we've only heard vaguely what's going to be happening with Broadway in Chicago, so the fact that they're giving us something specific here, that's news. Host: Seriously, I mean for all the people that have been out of work for so long in these big theaters, I know November is a long way away but light at the end of the tunnel is still light. Richards: Exactly. Host: So I'm glad we got some good news there. Richards: Wait a minute. Hold on just a moment. I'm being told I can now give this information. It's going to be the pre-Broadway premiere of a musical that's called Paradise Square. It’s a musical about the merging of Irish and African-American cultures in New York. So that's what this musical about it's going to be at the Nederlander Theatre, formerly known as the Oriental Theatre on Randolph Street in Chicago. But that's going to be the big show.”

Broadway-Aimed Paradise Square Will Play Chicago +

By Dan Meyer
May 18, 2021

The pre-Broadway tryout for Paradise Square will play a limited engagement at James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago November 2-December 5. Casting and details about a Main Stem production, including dates and a theatre, will be announced later.

Set in Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the Civil War, the musical follows the denizens of a local saloon, including the Black woman who owns it, a conflicted newly arrived Irish immigrant, a runaway slave, and a once-great songwriter.

Conceived by Larry Kirwan, Paradise Square features a score by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen, with additional material by Masi Asare and Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster. Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Kirwan wrote the book.

The world premiere of Paradise Square played Berkeley Repertory Theatre in December 2018. Returning to the creative team in Chicago are director Moisés Kaufman and choreographer Bill T. Jones. Graciela Daniele joins to provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

Rounding out the behind-the-scenes team are scenic designer Allen Moyer, costume designer Toni-Leslie James, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Jon Weston, hair and wig designer Matthew B. Armentrout, associate choreographers Talli Jackson and Gelan Lambert, and projection designer Wendall K. Harrington with special effects by Gregory Meeh. Dramaturgy is by Thulani Davis and Sydné Mahone, with Irish and Hammerstep choreography by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus, and casting by Stewart/Whitley.

Producers are Garth H. Drabinsky in association with Peter LeDonne and Teatro Proscenium Limited Partnership.

Broadway-Aimed Musical Paradise Square to Play Chicago in November +

By Lindsey Sullivan
May 18, 2021

A new musical eyeing Broadway is headed to Chicago. Following a world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2018-2019, Paradise Square will play Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre from November 2 through December 5. Director Moisés Kaufman and choreographer Bill T. Jones will return to the show, which was conceived by Larry Kirwan.

Paradise Square is set in 1863 in a 20-block area of Manhattan known as the Five Points, where Black and Irish Americans live side by side, work together, marry and for a brief period, realize racial harmony. However, the intensifying Civil War soon results in the first-ever federal draft, leading to riots. Will the hard-won bonds of friendship, community and family in the Five Points prevail or be severed forever?

Paradise Square features a book co-written by Pulitzer finalist Craig Lucas, Marcus Gardley, Christina Anderson and Kirwan. Music is composed by Jason Howland and Kirwan, with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and additional material by Masi Asare. Graciela Daniele will provide the musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The creative team also includes scenic designer Allen Moyer, costume designer Toni-Leslie James, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Jon Weston, hair and wig designer Matthew B. Armentrout, associate choreographers Talli Jackson and Gelan Lambert and projection designer Wendall K. Harrington with special effects by Gregory Meeh. Irish and Hammerstep choreography is by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus.

Casting for the Chicago engagement will be announced later.

Producer Garth Drabinsky Returns With Broadway-Bound Musical Paradise Square +

By Zachary Stewart
May 18, 2021

Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre will host the pre-Broadway run of the new musical Paradise Square November 2-December 5.

The show is produced by Garth H. Drabinsky, the Tony-winning producer behind Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Paradise Square is set in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City circa 1863 and is about a community of poor Irish immigrants and free Blacks who survive the war years and Draft Riots with raucous dance contests in neighborhood bars and dance halls. "It is here in the Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba," according to a press statement.

The book is a collaboration by Christina Anderson (Good Goods), Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand), Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza), and Larry Kirwan (lead singer of Black 47). It centers on a mixed-race family in 19th-century New York and the saloon run by that family's indomitable matriarch.

The score of Paradise Square is by composer Jason Howland (who did the arrangements for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) and lyricist Nathan Tysen (Tuck Everlasting). Additional material is provided by Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding) and Larry Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster ("Camptown Races"), who was writing and living in the Five Points at the time.

Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project) directs, with choreography by two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!). Ten-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, Once on This Island) will provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

Paradise Square made its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2019. Casting and dates for the Broadway run will be announced at a later date.

PARADISE SQUARE, Produced by Garth H. Drabinsky, Will Have Pre-Broadway Engagement in Chicago This November +

By BWW News Desk
May 18, 2021

The Pre-Broadway Premiere of Paradise Square is coming to Chicago! This new musical, which examines a remarkable yet virtually unknown moment in American history, will play a strictly limited engagement from November 2 - December 5, 2021, at Broadway In Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre. Paradise Square will be the first major Pre-Broadway show to raise its curtain in Chicago after the prolonged closure of live theatre due to the global pandemic. Casting and Broadway theatre and dates will be announced shortly.

The musical arrives with Tony winner Garth H. Drabinsky attached as producer.

"I am delighted to back," Drabinsky told the Chicago Tribune. "Without the return of the theater, great cities like New York and Chicago are just not the same." He also revealed that he hopes to bring the show to Broadway in early 2022.

New York City. 1863. The Civil War raged on. An extraordinary thing occurred amid the dangerous streets and crumbling tenement houses of the Five Points, the notorious 19th-century Lower Manhattan slum. Irish immigrants escaping the devastation of the Great Famine settled alongside free-born Black Americans and those who escaped slavery, arriving by means of the Underground Railroad. The Irish, relegated at that time to the lowest rung of America's social status, received a sympathetic welcome from their Black neighbors (who enjoyed only slightly better treatment in the burgeoning industrial-era city). The two communities co-existed, intermarried, raised families, and shared their cultures in this unlikeliest of neighborhoods.

The amalgamation between the communities took its most exuberant form with raucous dance contests on the floors of the neighborhood bars and dance halls. It is here in the Five Points where tap dancing was born, as Irish step dancing joyously competed with Black American Juba.

But this racial equilibrium would come to a sharp and brutal end when President Lincoln's need to institute the first Federal Draft to support the Union Army would incite the deadly NY Draft Riots of July 1863.

Within this galvanizing story of racial harmony undone by a country at war with itself, we meet the denizens of a local saloon called Paradise Square: the indomitable Black woman who owns it; her Irish-Catholic sister-in-law and her Black minister husband; a conflicted newly arrived Irish immigrant; a fearless freedom seeker; an anti-abolitionist political boss, and a penniless songwriter trying to capture it all. They have conflicting notions of what it means to be an American while living through one of the most tumultuous eras in our country's history.

The creative team for Paradise Square features direction by two-time Tony Award nominee Moisés Kaufman (I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project), choreography by two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!), and a book by Christina Anderson (Good Goods, Inked Baby), Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand), Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza) and Larry Kirwan (lead singer of Black 47). Ten-time Tony Award nominee Graciela Daniele (Ragtime, Once on This Island) will provide musical staging, in collaboration with Kaufman and Jones.

The score of Paradise Square is by the team of Grammy and Emmy Award winner Jason Howland (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Little Women - The Musical) and Nathan Tysen (Amélie, Tuck Everlasting), with additional material provided by Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding, The Family Resemblance) and Mr. Kirwan. The musical features original songs as well as a reimagining of the songs of Stephen Foster, who was writing and living in the Five Points at the time.

The multi-award-winning creative team features scenic design by Allen Moyer, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by Jon Weston, projection design by Wendall K. Harrington, special effects by Gregory Meeh, and hair and wig design by Matthew B. Armentrout. Dramaturgy is by Thulani Davis and Sydné Mahone. Associate choreographers are Talli Jackson and Gelan Lambert. Irish and Hammerstep choreography is by Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus. Casting is by Stewart/Whitley, CSA.

Tickets are available now for groups of 10 or more by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710 or emailing GroupSales@BroadwayInChicago.com. Paradise Square will be a part of the new BIC subscription which launches in August. Individual tickets for Paradise Square will go on sale on June 8. For more information, visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

The Real Story of the ‘Draft Riots’ +

By Elizabeth Mitchell
February 18, 2021

A mob murdered 23-year-old Abraham Franklin at 27th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City. He had hurried to visit his mother to pray by her side for her protection when the rioters began raging from Downtown to Uptown. Just as he finished his prayers, they crashed through the door, beat him and hanged him as his mother looked on. Then they mutilated his body in front of her.

During the riots in July 1863, the mob also came upon Peter Heuston, a 63-year-old widowed war veteran and a member of the Mohawk tribe, whom they took to be Black. They brutally attacked him on Roosevelt and Oak Streets near the East River. He died of his injuries, leaving his 8-year-old daughter an orphan.

Another victim, William Jones, was so disfigured, whether from the mob’s mutilation or the decay his body endured waiting for observers to gain courage to investigate his identity, that he could be identified only by the loaf of bread under his arm. He had gone out to fetch the staple for his wife and never returned. One woman testified that the mob broke through the doors of her son’s house on East 28th Street in Manhattan, where she was visiting, using pickaxes to break through. The thugs threw a baby out the window to its death. They chopped through the water pipes so the people hiding in the basement of the building would be drowned. They struck her son over the head with a crowbar, and he died in the hospital two days later. Some 400 white people attacked the Black orphanage on Fifth Avenue near 43rd Street. They cut the trees with axes, uprooted the shrubs in what had been a carefully tended garden, carted away the fence and burned the building to the ground.

Many people today, if they have even heard of the Draft Riots, probably know it as a violent citizens’ revolt against President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 conscription of soldiers. In Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” inspired by the nonfiction book by Herbert Asbury, what happened over those days comes across as a somewhat entertaining if gory battle between rival white gangs.

The truth is that over the course of some four days, mobs of white New Yorkers roamed the streets of the city from City Hall to Gramercy Park to past 40th Street, setting fire to buildings and killing people, targeting Black people for the most horrific violence. Historians are still assessing the overall death toll, with estimates ranging from more than 100 to more than a thousand. One of the most prestigious Black newspapers of the time estimated the deaths of people of color to be as high as 175. Other Black people were driven from their homes and all of their property destroyed. In the aftermath, some 5,000 Black New Yorkers were discoveredhiding on Blackwell’s Island, in police stations, in the swamps of New Jersey and in barns on Long Island, desperately seeking safety from the murderous white crowds.

The gruesome events should be remembered. They are as much a part of the city’s history as Sept. 11, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire or immigration through Ellis Island. And there is a related story to tell. One reason we know about the brutality of those events is a booklet, “Report of the Merchants’ Committee for the Relief of Colored People Suffering From the Riots in the City of New York,” published in 1863, from which I’ve drawn many of the descriptions in this article. Importantly, the clerks of the merchants’ committee recorded the testimony of many of the people who had lost loved ones to the murderous gangs, creating a clear record of many of the atrocities committed.

Immediately after the riots, the white merchants of New York combined forces to raise money to care for the injured, repair the damaged property and support the legal and employment needs of the terrorized Black people. Of course, nothing could make up for the lives lost and the pain and suffering inflicted on those who were attacked. But the shopkeepers quickly raised over $40,000, equivalent to more than $825,000 today. Their fund-raising effort was notable because it focused on preserving and honoring the dignity of the people the merchant committee’s report described as the “sufferers.”

“We have not come together to devise means for their relief because they are colored people,” wrote Jonathan Sturges, the treasurer of the group, “but because they are, as a class, persecuted and in distress at the present moment.”

The merchants went about their work methodically. They vowed to secure help from the county. Lawyers volunteered their expertise. When requested, ministers visited the homes of survivors. They urged businesses that were afraid to rehire their Black employees for fear of the mob’s vengeance to be courageous, and promised to guard the businesses that did rehire.

J.D. McKenzie, the chairman, noted that the murderers and pillagers “sought to destroy a race.” But the shopkeepers made a point of not wasting their time focusing on who perpetrated each of the evil deeds. The report made clear that the murderers were clearly “bad men.” The group moved on to what they could do to rectify the inhumanity.

On Saturday, July 25, 1863, the third day that funds were disbursed, applicants packed Fourth Street near Broadway. The donors prided themselves on limiting stress for the recipients. “There are no harsh or unkind words uttered by the clerks — no impertinent quizzing in regard to irrelevant matters — no partisan or sectarian view advanced. The business is transacted in a straightforward, practical manner, without chilling the charity into an offense by creating the impression that the recipient is humiliated by accepting the gift,” The New York Daily Tribune reported. The donors encouraged people to return if they needed more help.

In the first month, the group assisted 6,392 people. Since their children were beneficiaries as well, the total number helped added up to 12,782 — from laborers to music teachers, physicians to cooks, ministers, artists, and farmers.

Black ministers and laymen wrote a note to the merchants about what it all meant: “You did not hesitate to come forward to our relief amid the threatened destruction of your own lives and property. You obeyed the noblest dictates of the human heart, and by your generous moral courage you rolled back the tide of violence that had well nigh swept us away.” This episode from the 19th century is haunting even now, first, because of its brutality. The violence occurred on streets where people now dine and shop, oblivious to what happened. Men were lynched while simply walking home from their jobs. But the manner in which the shopkeepers of New York responded is also important, and it may be instructive to how all people confront and respond to racism today.

It’s horrific what happened on Washington and Leroy Streets, or 34th Street at the East River, East 28th Street, Fulton Ferry, 30th Street and Second Avenue, and Carmine Street in 1863. But horrific events fueled by racism are not just in our past. Think of what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis and David McAtee in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in South Georgia, and what happens in the cells of people still waiting to be freed under the Supreme Court’s ruling against juvenile life sentences.

The story of the merchants’ response to the so-called Draft Riots is a reminder that we can all do more if we don’t want the lives of more Black people to be marred by cruelty. That begins with having a cleareyed view of our own history. Understanding the past in a way that’s neither sugarcoated nor whitewashed will keep us moving forward.

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