World Class Musical Shows Black & Irish Lives Matter
by Jennifer Ann Charron
It’s rare to witness a momentous new musical. My shoulders clench and my jaw drops, like a dumb-struck child. That’s me watching “Paradise Square: A New Musical” that tells the history of Black and Irish people living together in Manhattan—just before the Civil War.
“Paradise Square” explores the little-known history of New York’s Five Points neighborhood through the eyes and music of Stephen Foster (touching Jacob Fishel), the father of American popular music. Foster is the soul of the show, and Fishel’s emotional “Beautiful Dreamer” brought tears to my eyes.
The sheer scale of this production astounds us. It’s BIG. Three-story tenements rise above a rotating stage, with music and movement everywhere. The cast is the largest in Berkeley Rep’s history, and each performer shines. Stalwart Annie O’Brien (lyrical Madeline Trumble) moves us with her emotional “Was My Brother in the Battle.”
“Paradise Square” accumulates strength from the spellbinding history of race, class, and slavery. The story’s impact, multiplied by waves of talent, awakens us to the hidden human drama.
Five-Points is home to free Blacks and Irish immigrants, workers at the bottom of Manhattan life. As friends and family, Black and Irish folks work together to make the most of their exploited, slum life at the Five Points. Black and Irish neighbors celebrate life with inter-racial marriages and friendships in the local saloon. Five Points represents the pre-Civil War U.S. Melting Pot.
Despite their harmony, outside forces—Bowery Strikes, slave hunters, and the Draft—separate families and friends. Lincoln’s unequal Draft drives a racial and economic wedge—immigrants can serve in the Army, but Blacks are banned. And a rich man can buy his way out of the Union Army for $300.
“Paradise Square” is sweeping and magnificent, featuring ingenious interwoven stories by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan. Gorgeous music by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan, and poetic lyrics by Nathan Tysen, carry us to a thrilling past. Stephen Foster’s old tunes, like “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and brilliant new anthems like “Let It Burn” make history anew.
Director Moisés Kaufman blends the luminous dances by Bill T. Jones into his historic show. Jones shows the cross pollination of dance forms, including traditional Irish jigs and African Juba dance, creating tap dancing and wild “dance-off” contests, onstage. And Garrett Coleman is an outstanding champion of Irish dance.
The runaway slave and amazing Juba dancer William Henry Lane (flying Sidney Dupont) leaps his way into our hearts. William competes with amazing, young Irish dancer Owen Duignan (elegant A.J. Shively), when both need a room at Nelly Freeman’s saloon. Their amazing Juba and Irish jig dancing make the throbbing heart of the show.
As formidable Nelly Freeman, powerful singer Christina Sajous embodies a sympathetic saloon keeper. As a Black woman married to Willie O’Brien (Brendan Wall), Nelly links Black and Irish love. Sister Annie O’Brien , married to Black Reverend Samuel E. Cornish (admirable Daren A. Herbert), complete one inter-racial family.
As usual, bosses pit the people against each other, destroying their comradeship. In the midst of strikes and rebellion, the intrepid Christina Sajous sings the powerful, final anthem, “Let It Burn,” and we are shocked. We realize how fragile are the pillars of our democracy. How can we resist the forces of division and re-recreate the utopia of Five Points? “Paradise Square” shows us the way.
“Paradise Square: A New Musical” –book by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan, music by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan, lyrics by Nathan Tysen, based on the songs of Stephen Foster, conceived by Larry Kirwin, choreography by Bill T. Jones, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at Berkeley Repertory Theater, through Sunday, March 3, 2019. Info: berkeleyrep.org
Cast: Karen Burthwright, Kennedy Caughell, Tiffany Adeline, Garrett Coleman, Colin Cunliffe, Chloé Davis, Kevin Dennis, Bernard Dotson, Jamal Christopher Douglas,
Sidney Dupont, Sam Edgerly, Jacob Fishel, Shiloh Goodin, Jacobi Hall, Daren A. Herbert, Erin Lamar, Gabrielle McClinton, Ben Michael, Jason Oremus, Bridget Riley,
Clinton Roane, Celia Mei Rubin, Christina Sajous, A.J. Shively, Erica Spyres, Madeline Trumble, Mark Uhre, Lael Van Keuren, Brendan Wall, Sir Brock Warren, Chris Whelan, and Hailee Kaleem Wright.
Banner Photo: Sidney Dupont and A.J. Shively. All photos by Kevin Berne.