Stirring new Berkeley Rep musical captures improbable racial utopia in Civil War-era New York
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There’s no shortage of reminders all around that progress isn’t a linear process. Great leaps forward are all too often followed by many steps back.
That truth is brought into stark relief in “Paradise Square: A New Musical,” getting its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Set in 1863 and freely fictionalizing historical figures, the show captures a brief period of harmony when Irish and African-Americans freely intermingled in the working-class Manhattan neighborhood called the Five Points (the same area and era where the film “Gangs of New York” is set).
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“Paradise Square” was conceived by Larry Kirwan, leader of the Celtic rock band Black 47, who previously created a very different version of the musical called “Hard Times: An American Musical” that played off-Broadway some years back using the songs of Stephen Foster (“Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susanna”).
This new version boasts a particularly impressive creative team. The book of the musical is by playwrights Marcus Gardley (“black odyssey,” “The House That will not Stand”), Craig Lucas (“Prelude to a Kiss,” “Amélie”) and Kirwan. The music is by Jason Howland (“Little Women”) and Kirwan with lyrics by Nathan Tysen (“Amelie,” “Tuck Everlasting”), including many riffs on classic Foster ditties. It’s directed by Tectonic Theater Project founder Moisés Kaufman (writer of “The Laramie Project” and “Gross Indecency”) with choreography by Bill T. Jones (“Spring Awakening,” “Fela!”).
Jones’ choreography is well worth the price of admission in itself, stunningly dynamic, evocative and unconventional. There’s a lot of sprightly Irish step dancing (choreographed by ensemble members and “Riverdance” alums Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus) and African-American Juba dance, both precursors of tap dance. The greatest moments of pure joy in the musical happen during raucous dance-offs.
Allen Moyer’s ever-transforming set of skeletal three-story structures gives the show both a wonderfully gritty feeling and a grand sense of scale, and Toni-Leslie James’ period costumes really accentuate class divides, especially when white ladies in big poofy gowns stray into the play.
Christina Sajous is stern and tough as nails as Nelly Freeman, the black proprietor of a bar that her Irish lover left for Nelly and his sister Annie to manage when he went off to war. Madeline Trumble plays a boisterous, pistol-packing Annie O’Brien, complemented well by Daren A. Herbert as her somber black abolitionist husband, Reverend Samuel E. Cornish.
The play cleverly juxtaposes two earnest and overwhelmed new arrivals, Annie’s fresh-off-the-boat nephew Owen (A.J. Shively) and Underground Railroad fugitive William Henry Lane (Sidney Dupont), both of whom turn out to be terrific dancers.
The Civil War soon bitterly divides the community — not the war itself but the draft, which sweeps up immigrants to become cannon fodder while prohibiting black people from enlisting.
Played by an offstage orchestra under the direction of Howland, the music has no particular fealty to the period. The songs are a mixed bag, some lovely or stirring, buoyed considerably by the dancing. A forgettable duet about how nice it is to have “Somebody to Love” is followed by the achingly potent love song “Angelina Baker,” later reprised as a jazzy number. Several Stephen Foster songs are rewritten with new lyrics and different melodies, such as “Hard Times Come Again No More” awkwardly reimagined as an anthemic fight song.
Foster appears as a character, down and out and working in the bar as a pianist under a fake name. Though Jacob Fishel gives a sympathetic performance as the famous composer turned incognito hanger-on, the Foster subplot feels strangely disposable, at best a distraction from the real drama going on around him. As an appreciative observer of the Five Points, Foster distances more than he provides a point of entry to the life of a community that was ahead of its time, and in some ways is ahead of ours.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
‘PARADISE SQUARE: A NEW MUSICAL.’
By Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, Larry Kirwan, Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Through: Feb. 24
Where: Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley
Running time: Two hours and 40 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $40-$115; 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org