Danahey on the Loose at Paradise Square

Paradise Square Dancers
Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman in Paradise Square/ Photo by Kevin Berne

The Broadway-bound musical Paradise Square is not based on Meatloaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light. And if you have two tickets to Paradise Square at the Nederlander in Chicago, please, for your show date’s sake, don’t start singing along to Eddie Money’s hit from the late 1970s.

Glad we got that out of the way.

Speaking of food, though, the Sunday prior to heading downtown to see Paradise Square, I met some friends at Mitsuwa Marketplace in Arlington Heights, where I bought some Japanese mille crepe cakes, just like ones I had seen on The Great British Bake Off.

They looked so pretty, and slices of the truffle and chocolate versions came home with me in an elegant box.

While tasty, they turned out to be not what I expected.

“Too many layers. They take away from the flavor,” or words to that effect are what I think my buddy Tom said after pondering what he just tasted, the dessert I brought over for dinner.

Later in the week I had pizza from my town’s go-to place, Village, one with all the toppings. Tasty, again, but the crust was slightly soggy, which is what can happen with so many ingredients.

Now, while writing this, yeah, I’m thinking of food again: Thanksgiving, where there’s always way too much to eat.

Still, I will be hitting three friends’ homes for dinners, one where the turkey will be deep fried. And just three homes is a trifle number of stops for me. I’m dieting. Sort of.

Anyway,  if you made it this far, yes, I’ve been meandering metaphorically as I get to my points in a sort-of review of Paradise Square.

See, the musical is still a work in progress. While there’s much to enjoy about the ambitious production, like the cakes, the pizza and Thanksgiving dinner, there’s a tad too much. It needs trimming, tightening and focus.

See Chris Jones’ take in the Chicago Tribune and the Variety review from Steve Oxman for their own flavorful takes on Paradise Square.

With my own word stew here, as this piece is for Irish-centric publications, what I had originally intended was to ask any members of Chicago’s Irish community who made it to opening night or other Paradise Square performances what they thought about the show.

That hasn’t happened, though the offer still stands.

Still, as Paradise Square morphs into what it ultimately will become for Broadway, Chicago audiences – and Chicago Irish and Black communities in particular – can use the show’s expansive story lines as a springboard to reflect back upon and investigate their own ancestors’ migration experiences, to explore the actual history that frames the production.

See, Paradise Square is set in Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood in the times leading up to  the Draft Riots of 1863.

Charles Dickens visited Five Points in the 1840s and was taken by what he saw.

It’s where very poor people lived, particularly immigrant Irish and Black people. Rich and famous white people went “slumming” in Five Points to see how the impoverished existed, taking in the tenements and the taverns as tourists.

Most of the action of Paradise Square takes place in a Five Points saloon owned by an Irish immigrant, Willie O’Brien, and his Black wife, Nelly.

Willy O’Brien dies relatively early in the show, fighting as a volunteer for the North in the Civil War. Nelly runs the saloon, with some help from her extended, multiracial family.

It’s a touch of paradise, where under Nelly’s watch, there’s nary a fight, nobody appears to be an alcoholic (but for the piano player), everyone who’s a regular gets along (for the most part), there’s music and there’s great competitive dancing.

Legend has it that in places like this, where Irish steps met African Juba, tap dance emerged as a new art form.

While set mostly at the inn, the musical touches on enough topics through its characters to fill a season or two of a streaming series.

You have: an off-the-boat Irish immigrant and his post-Great Famine plight; a bitter Irish immigrant who returns from the Civil War missing a limb; an evil, rich, white, corrupt, blueblood politician who stokes the flames of bigotry as he lines his pockets; a Black minister who is also a blue collar middle manager and who is married to an Irish immigrant, with both involved in the abolitionist movement; a young man who escaped enslavement; that man’s girlfriend, who escaped with him, but gets lost along the way.

Oh, there’s a character the girlfriend meets along the way who is a bit like abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

For a show trying to make so many points, it doesn’t offer anything about the plight of poor children of the day. And it pulls its punches when it comes to the hurtful language of the era. From what I recall, the worst pejorative term used is “colored,” and there’s no mention of paddy wagons.

Then there’s problematic Stephen Foster, whose identity isn’t revealed to the audience until the second act.

See, the musical began its life early last decade as Hard Times, a work from Irish-tinged rock band Black 47 frontman Larry Kirwan, which explored Foster’s time living in Five Points around the times of the Draft Riots.

With producer Garth Drabinsky’s involvement, Hard Times morphed into Paradise Square, which debuted a few years ago at the Berkeley Rep in the San Francisco Bay Area. The book for Paradise Square is attributed to Kirwan, along with Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley and Craig Lewis; the music is by Jason Howlan; lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare; choreography from Bill T. Jones; and the director is Moises Kaufman.

Washington and Owen
Sidney DuPont as Washington Henry and A.J. Shively as Owen Duignan in Paradise Square/ Photo by Kevin Berne.

In terms of what’s on stage, those who appreciate Irish culture should enjoy the results of how Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus of the innovative Brooklyn-based troupe Hammerstep worked with Tony-winning choreographer Jones to incorporate their takes on step dancing into the mix of moves in the musical, particularly its unforgettable feis scene.

Adaptations of Foster’s music remains a key element of the production, too, including a remaking of “Angelina Baker” into an unforgettable dance number from Sidney DuPont as the formerly enslaved Washington Baker.

Foster’s big mouth also moves along the plot. And he’s there as a plot point about cultural appropriation, as his music romanticized enslavement and he takes from what he hears in the saloon for his own tunes.

This all swirls to the penultimate moment in the show, as the July 1863 Draft Riots make their way to Paradise Square.

Lest you forget your history, the Union’s draft only applied to white men, new immigrants included. If you had $300 or could find someone to take your place, you didn’t get drafted. Black men didn’t get drafted, well, because they weren’t considered as people.

Adding to the tension, a good portion of New York’s economy revolved around the South and textiles/cotton.

Immigrants and Black people competed for working class jobs, adding even more to the tension, as did the anti-immigrant and racist bigotry of the day. Let’s not forget, Black and the Irish people were considered subhuman by some, and needed not apply for work, as the signs said.

Riots happened in several cities in the North. In New York, Black men were lynched, and a mob burned down an orphanage and school that was home to Black children.

This account from the University of Chicago Press offers examples of relative quiet and cooperation between Irish and black residents in the face of rioters in the Five Points neighborhood. This account from the Washington Post claims some Irish women were among the most brutal rioters, and between 100 – 500 people died during the mayhem.

Still, research from Virginia Ferris at NYU points out that interracial marriage was not uncommon in New York and Five Points.

Past how all the actual history plays into Paradise Square, past the Irish and Black cultural aspects of the production, you’ll witness a spectacular star turn by Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly, who brings down the house with the show stopping “Let It Burn.”

In some ways, “Let It Burn” reminds me of “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen, the empowering anthem pretty much every parent everywhere knows.

In fact, Paradise Square, with its lush music, overall seems a bit Disney. Maybe Nelly is a PG-13 Disney princess for our times, which is a good thing.

Like Disney musicals, Paradise Square has a (sort-of) happy ending. While the bar burns, the formerly enslaved couple reunites. The patrons of Nelly’s saloon all survive the riots. And the play offers hope in the face of despair and in the face of issues that still haunt us today.

Yes, this isn’t Bertolt Brecht or The Cradle Will Rock. It ain’t Eugene O’Neill or August Wilson. It’s big budget Broadway, maybe in a Les Miserable or Ragtime way.

All of which has been a long way to reiterate that Paradise Square has a lot on its plate as it makes its way to what could turn out to be a very satisfying musical meal.

Which reminds: even Thanksgiving pies have contentious histories tied to Civil War times troubles.

Ain’t that America?

Joaquina Kalukango
Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly O’Brien in Paradise Square/ Photo By Kevin Berne