At some point in 19th century New York, tap dancing (or something like it) was born. It was a little of this, a little of that: In the rough-and-tumble Five Points district, Black and Irish New Yorkers competed in “cutting” challenges, trading steps and rhythms from sean-nós dance and clogging to the buck-and-wing and juba. In these unsegregated bars and brothels and dance halls — and in squalid conditions — the city developed an art form, not to mention a pocket of interracial quasi-harmony. In 1863, when chaotic anti-draft demonstrations turned into a vicious race riot, white terrorism raged for five days uptown and downtown. But in the Five Points, where some neighbors protected each other, the mobs were pushed back.
Dance and history and race and loss tempered with hope — what a subject for a musical this would be, if only Paradise Square had managed to theatricalize it. There’s room for it in its two hours and 45 minutes, but the gluey (and clearly glued-together) book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan uses the real setting and events without, somehow, actually telling their story. Production queasiness is part of the problem, as is the script’s upside-down logic. Corruption-by-a-thousand-fixes accounts for the rest.
Nelly Freeman (Joaquina Kalukango) runs the Paradise Square saloon in Five Points, and we meet her on a teary evening as her husband Willie O’Brien (Matt Bogart) is about to depart for the Civil War. Freeborn Nelly and her Irish sister-in-law Annie (Chilina Kennedy) are what was then called “amalgamationists” — women in interracial marriages — which has bound them tightly together. Annie and her husband the Reverend (Nathaniel Stampley) use Nelly’s spare room as a way station for young men in need: The Reverend brings by the runaway slave Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont), while Annie (who doesn’t have a floor available, for some reason?) asks Nelly to house her poor Irish nephew Owen (A.J. Shively). Nelly now makes her first big choice of the musical — the men will share the room! — which should give you some sense of what the creators know about dramatic construction, reality, the tenements, whatever.
Nelly has been placed in the play’s protagonist position, but the writers can’t think of a single interesting choice to give her. People keep saying various decisions are up to her, but she has very little agency in the plot itself. Even her reactions to crises are strangely delayed and muted. Her bar is threatened by evil party boss Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett), so she decides to run a dance competition to raise funds … in a month. When her beloved husband gets chewed up by the war, she (several scenes later) sings about … wanting to hang onto the tavern. “Why must it hurt to hold space for a dream?” she wonders, in cloying lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. Her big moment comes when Washington Henry shows up late to the dance competition, and she reluctantly lets him perform. That’s it!
Now, Kalukango herself is amazing. She has a voice that blasts through the room like a train going through a junction, and Nelly’s 11 o’clock number “Let It Burn” ends on a note that pulls the theater to its feet, stamping and cheering. The plot, though, wouldn’t miss her. Cut the part, and the story wouldn’t change.
How do you wind up with a lead character in this predicament? Paradise Square has been much altered in its decade of development. The Irish rocker Kirwan started this project in 2012 with a show called Hard Times, in which the composer Stephen Foster played the central role, hanging out at a saloon and rediscovering his passion while writing blockbusters like “Camptown Races.” Then the producer Garth Drabinsky, his eye on a return to Broadway, started sweeping clean — or at least, tidy. Some of that plot remains: There’s still a white pianist and songwriter (Jacob Fishel) at Paradise Square, though Foster’s songs have largely vanished, replaced with unremarkable middle-of-the-road compositions by Jason Howland. There’s some finger-wagging about appropriation, but we never actually hear that Foster made his fortune writing minstrel songs, nor that the Five Points scene was full of minstrel performers, both Black and white. For a musical about facing history, it’s very shy.
There are more playwrights even than the ones credited in the program — in Chicago, Marcus Gardley was on the team too — and composition by committee is not a great way to write. The decisions about what merits a scene seem baffling, and there are story fragments littered in odd places, usually to keep any accusations of political insufficiency at bay. Do we need to know that Washington Henry’s lover Angelina was rescued by a woman who wears trousers? No, but there’s a lugubrious flashback, so we know the creative team hasn’t erased the queer community. All this sweaty maneuvering to “fix” the original allows important things, deeper things, to slip. For instance, whenever Owen or the other two Irish dancers (Colin Barkell and Garrett Coleman) launch into their foot-flashing, high-springing dances, Howland’s music starts to reel, twanging with Irish bouzouki and tin flute. But when Washington Henry and the other Black dancers go into their choreography (by superstar Bill T. Jones), the instrumentation and rhythms refuse to follow them. Howland’s standard-issue musical theater works against their movements, so they stamp out beats that don’t exist. It makes the virtuosic Black dancers seem unmusical — but really it’s the musical itself failing to listen.
There is one good thing about the way Paradise Square has been developed into the ground: The ensemble members have had plenty of time to figure out their parts. Allen Moyer’s tall, skeletal tenement set gives the two-dozen-strong cast plenty of places to stand, so director Moisés Kaufman often puts them on various levels, staring down at the floor of the bar. If the repetitive elements pall — you will start out amazed by the dancers, then those returns will diminish — you could always cast your eyes up, into the shadows. I had several favorites among the supernumeraries, including a guy who brought his baby to watch the competition and a mandolin player who fell asleep. Appropriately for a show about a neighborhood, the chorus gives us a sense of lives and passions moving just out of the field of focus. Everything down in the spotlight had been goosed into underthought melodrama, but at the edges of the space, there were hints of the dark and funny and real. Those were the places the show — and history — kept choosing to forget. So, feeling a little desperate, that’s where I looked.
Paradise Square is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.