In an ideal world, the original new Broadway musical “Paradise Square” would live up to its fascinating historical source material: the 19th century Lower Manhattan slum of Five Points, where free Blacks and immigrants lived together up until the Civil War.
Although well-meaning and filled with some striking visuals and pointed political commentary, “Paradise Square” is sappy, overstuffed, overlong, and tiresome.
The melodramatic plot revolves around numerous characters including a Black saloon proprietress (Joaquina Kalukango), a runaway slave (Sidney DuPont), a covert agent of the Underground Railroad (Nathaniel Stampley), a newly-arrived Irish immigrant (A.J. Shively), an angry Civil War veteran (Kevin Dennis), a broadly nefarious local politician (John Dossett), and a drunk pianist (Jacob Fishel). Somehow, the second act segues from a piano showroom and a dance off into the deadly Draft Riot of 1863.
The production is directed by Moisés Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”) with an impressively large cast, period costumes, and a revolving, multi-level industrial set. Kaufman seems to have approached it more with a visual eye than a dramaturgical hand. Its best moments involve large, striking tableaux and full-bodied, expressive modern dance choreography by Bill T. Jones. On the other hand, the book (credited to no less than three writers) is a labored mess, and the score (credited to no less than four writers) is a strange amalgam of bombastic pop, 19th century minstrel songs, gospel, and Irish folk.
The cast tries to sell the material, often relying on tough-looking poses and big singing. Kalukango throws herself into high-powered pop ballads, and DuPont and Shively turn a dance face-off into a raw mini-drama. Also among the cast is Matt Bogart, who gave an epic performance as Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” at Paper Mill Playhouse years ago.
There are many well-crafted musicals dealing with all kinds of chapters in the history of New York City including “Hamilton,” “Fiorello!,” “Rent,” “Ragtime,” “On the Town,” and “Annie,” plus rarities like “Rags” and “Knickerbocker Holiday.” However, “Paradise Square” is less likely to be remembered for its historical content than for the fact that it serves as the vehicle for a comeback attempt by Garth Drabinsky, a major Broadway producer of the 1990s, who was later convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison. Instead of seeing “Paradise Square,” I recommend streaming the documentary “Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky.”
If not much else, “Paradise Square” might be an ideal show for educators who want to take their students to a Broadway musical about U.S. history but can’t score tickets to “Hamilton.” As a homework assignment, the students can research the numerous historical events that are dutifully mentioned or write an essay about the contemporary political concerns (violent insurrection, cultural misappropriation, class tensions, need for empathy).that the show overemphasizes in trying to prove its relevance.
“Paradise Square” plays an open run at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., paradisesquaremusical.com.