December 11, 2023

Immigration Marriage

Feel Good With Immigration

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

From left, Joshua Keith, Chloe Davis, Sidney DuPont, Sir Brock Warren, and Jay McKenzie in Paradise Square.Julieta Cervantes/Handout

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  • Title: Paradise Square
  • Book by: Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan
  • Music by: Jason Howland
  • Lyrics by: Nathan Tyson and Masi Asare
  • Director: Moises Kaufman
  • Actors: Joaquina Kalukango, Sidney DuPont, Chilina Kennedy
  • Produced by: Garth Drabinsky
  • Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre
  • City: New York
  • Year: Booking to Nov. 27, 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.

From left, Chilina Kennedy as Annie Lewis, and Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly O’Brien.Kevin Berne/Handout

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 cast of Garth Drabinsky’s Paradise Square .Kevin Berne/Handout

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.

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