Paradise Square at Ethel Barrymore Theater, 47th St/Broadway, NYC, 3-26, 2022
  By Bill Nevins
Paradise Square, the big-time Broadway production which has evolved from Larry Kirwan’s acclaimed 2012 off-Broadway play Hard Times, is a rousing musical extravaganza full of dancing, loving, singing, freedom and joy! And fierce defiance of bigotry and repression! Black 47 fans (like myself) who fondly recall the band’s blissful 25 years of dancing- rock concerts and Larry Kirwan’s roof-raising anthem “Five Points” from the Green Suede Shoes album will feel comfortably back at home in Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango)’s Paradise Square pub ensconced in the heart of the early 1860s Five Points lower-Manhattan slum.  Indeed, seated in the luxurious Barrymore Theater front row, we could scarcely keep ourselves from leaping up and dancing along. And when Kalukango brought the house down with her fierce, show-stopping rendition of “Let It Burn!”, the entire audience was on its feet applauding and there was nary a dry eye in the place!

Larry Kirwan
Yes, the Five Points may have been attacked and partially burned-down during the 1863 Draft Riots, but the hard-bitten, good-humored cross-cultural communal spirit that had been birthed there lives on in the joyous imaginative vision of Paradise Square, a sort of working-class variation on Camelot—“for one brief shining moment” deep in the darkest hard- times of old New York City and America’s Civil War that just might reignite and  illuminate our troubled America and world today. This play is a glorious celebration of that shining moment.

The Broadway production is a grandly collaborative achievement. Christina Anderson and Craig Lucas share book-writing credits with Kirwan, while Jason Howland wrote most of the play’s music with additional music by Kirwan inspired by Stephen Foster. The play’s lyrics were penned by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. Moisés Kaufman directs the play and
Garth Drabinsky is the producer. Bill T. Jones brilliantly choreographs almost-constant dancing which contrasts and blends Irish leaping step-dance with beautiful West African rhythmic moves. This play’s essential emotional impact is conveyed via phenomenal dancing and singing. The cast is very large, and like the gracefully rotating sets, they seem to be in almost perpetual motion. It’s a true thrill-ride!

Lead dancer/singer roles include war-widow Nelly O’Brien (Kalukango), her confidant Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy, brightly played by understudy Kennedy Caughell at our performance),  Irish immigrant and draft-resistor Owen Duigan (smashingly danced by A.J. Shiveley), defiant refugee from enslavement Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont, danced heroically by Jay McKenzie at our performance). They are supported ably by Matt Bogart as the misled demagogue Lucky Mike Quinlan, John Dossett as the evilly-plotting politician Frederic Tiggens, Nathaniel Stampley as Underground Railroad conductor Rev. Lewis, Gabrielle McClinton as the beautiful “Gentle Annie” Angelina Baker and so many more fine actor/dancers.  

The character of the drunken piano- man “Milton Moore” (played by Jacob Fishel) is an assumed identity for song writer Stephen Foster, who has a shakey and unintentionally- treacherous standing in the Five Points milieu. Foster’s “Camptown Races” and “Gentle Annie” drift into the show in eerily re-heard contexts. Misapplied cultural appropriation is a revealing sub-text here as the pathetic voyeur Foster distorts work  songs and genuine sufferers’ laments into noxious parlor entertainments.

Over a post-performance pint of Guinness at Rosie O’Grady’s upscale saloon on 7th Avenue at 52nd Street, Larry Kirwan recalled that he conceived of Nelly O’Brien’s powerful, resilient pub-mistress when he recalled the strong women of color who often managed the Manhattan after - hours socializing and dancing clubs Kirwan and his literary and musical pals frequented during the 1970s and early 1980s. “All kinds of people came in there, of whatever skin color or social status, and not all of them were the most sober or tamest sorts, yet no one ever got into fights and the party rolled on, great fun, grand craic. And those strong women in charge kept things peaceful and friendly,” reminisced Kirwan, adding that “as I thought about those New York clubs later, I had a very clear vision that such a safe and friendly place might have existed as a pub even in the heart of the rough, rowdy Five Points.

Kirwan’s artistic-historical conception of Paradise Square stands in sharp contrast to the warring-tribes Five Points scenario presented in Martin Scorcese’s film Gangs of New York. The Five Points of Paradise Square is a place where folks of divergent origins, skin colors and social status—black, white, Irish, German, African, immigrant, free-born or escaped from enslavement by Southern planters or British colonialists.

Larry Kirwan, over his many creative decades has always given us clear-eyed political and historical revelations along with liberating musical revelry.

His Broadway hit play is no exception to that tradition. And in this time of uncertainty and war, we need such clarity and glimmers of resurgent hope. One hopes the good people of Ukraine will find their way to a place of peace and camaraderie like that to be found in Kirwan’s warm pub-refuge. Do yourself a favor and get tickets for yourself and your loved ones.  The craic is mighty at Paradise Square!

  Bill Nevins is an
Albuquerque-based writer.
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