Paradise Square, a musical ten years in development, just landed on Broadway with an overwrought thud. The dancing by Bill T. Jones and a powerhouse performance by Joaquina Kalukango are almost enough to save the show; but ultimately the simplistic moralizing storytelling and written-by-committee score are simultaneously too much and too little.
New York Times Review of Paradise Square
[T]he uplifting, star-making, overwrought new musical, which opened on Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, turns history on its head. … If most of the score suffers from a mild case of overstatement — whipping up a series of generic rock ballads and throat-shredding anthems — the book and staging suffer from full-blown emphasitis. … I’m a sucker as much as the next critic for liberal pieties, and I appreciate the stance of a musical centered on Black lives that has its heroine say, near the end, “We pass on to you this story on our own terms.” But strong stances do not make up for weak characterization or suggest why such strength is necessary. That the position of the Irish and other white immigrants is not nearly as effectively dramatized as that of the Black characters is morally good but theatrically dull. In that combination, I feel the meaty hand of the producer Garth H. Drabinsky, who seems to have used his influence to shape “Paradise Square” into a likeness of his previous hits. … But unlike those musicals, which were built on the frames of strongly written novels by authors with singular voices, “Paradise Square” feels almost authorless despite its many contributors, and the direction of Moisés Kaufman, known for a strong hand and conceptual coherence, does little to erase the impression of anonymity. (The design elements are likewise merely efficient.) Contingent and anxious, the show seems more interested in saying the right things than in telling a coherent story. … Wait — I take that back: It does tell a coherent story, in two ways. One is in the dancing, which employs a kaleidoscopic crash of contextual styles, including step dance for the Irish characters and Juba for the Black ones, to explore, far more subtly than the book, the place where appropriation and joyful sharing meet. … The other source of coherence in “Paradise Square” is [Joaquina] Kalukango, who somehow alchemizes the remarkable difficulties of the role into her characterization [of Nelly O’Brien], making it incredible in the good way instead of the bad. … Nothing really prepares you for the moment when an actor brings everything she has to the stage and essentially writes what needs to be said while you watch. It makes you believe in making history.
TimeOut Review of Paradise Square
Paradise Square is a square peg of a Broadway musical, and it spends much of its time in different round holes. On one hand, this ambitious but amorphous show is a wide-ranging historical period piece about life and strife in Lower Manhattan’s violent Five Points district during the Civil War, as experienced by clashing groups of New Yorkers: white people, Black people, immigrants from places like Ireland and Germany. On another hand, it is a melodrama about couples and families torn apart by slavery, war and mustache-twirling villains. On yet another hand, or perhaps a foot, it is a Mickey-and-Judy story about a struggling local business that tries to keep its creditors at bay by mounting…a dance-off! As Paradise Square tries to juggle its weighty subject matter on these various appendages, you can sense it straining to keep its balance. … Director Moisés Kaufman stages all of the above with a sense of grave pageantry that gets a solid assist from Allen Moyer’s rotating set and Toni-Leslie James’s rich array of petticoats and vests. It’s a handsome production, with a talented and notably large cast; the exciting dance sequences, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, are among the show’s highlights, though one senses a missed opportunity in depicting the cross-pollination of Irish step dancing and Black tap traditions. … The problem is that the writing doesn’t support the spectacle, yielding a ponderous hash of good intentions that often feels like a training-wheels version of Ragtime. The disjointed script hops among scenes and tones, and while one understands the impetus behind ditching Foster’s catchy but plantation-flavored songs, the score that has replaced them—by Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare—is mostly unmemorable. The thrilling exception that proves the rule is Nelly’s final number, “Let It Burn.” Like Cynthia Erivo in The Color Purple, Kalukango keeps her performance at a slow and steady smolder for most of Paradise Square, then flares out with deep emotional force. Her heat is infectious: The crowd rises up, finally inflamed.
Deadline Review of Paradise Square
Paradise Square makes quite the reach. A musical about the build-up to New York’s horrific Draft Riots of 1863 reaches to the past to tell us about the present. It reaches across cultures to tell us about assimilation and appropriation. It reaches across styles of music and dance to celebrate diversity and commonality. It reaches to contain both epic realism and mythical nostalgia. And somewhere along the line it reaches a point of no return, when all that reaching just wears itself out. … Music by Jason Howland (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), and lyrics by Nathan Tysen (Amélie) and Masi Asare (Monsoon Wedding) provide the bulk of the anthemic and rather bombastic score, with just enough Celtic and Blues undertones to distinguish the songs from generic Broadway showtunes. … Paradise Square comes very close to saving itself from its own impulses – not least from a theatrically disappointing climax of a brief, unterrifying and bloodless riot – by giving star Kalukango the evening’s single greatest moment of glory: a powerhouse anthem of anger and defiance called “Let It Burn,” in which this wonderful singer castigates the rioters and the destroyers and taunts that the human spirit can survive the destruction of ramshackle structures. As a battle tactic, “Let It Burn” falls a good deal short, but as a vocal exercise for an astonishing singer, the number is a treasure (and might very well hand Kalukango a Tony Award nomination that might otherwise have missed her).
Variety Review of Paradise Square
The body can sometimes say more than words, but even the most expressive moves cannot make a coherent case for “Paradise Square.” The blunt and belabored history lesson of a new musical set in Manhattan’s Five Points…is wrong-footed from the jump. … “Paradise Square” puts a host of stock characters in a broadly sketched historical setting, piles on the plot, and hopes for contemporary resonance. The result is a tiresome mess. … Supported by a formidable dance ensemble, the ongoing face-off between the two men is at least a vibrant showcase for propulsive choreography from Bill T. Jones. … But despite a sometimes promising blend of Irish textures with soulful gospel, there’s little to distinguish the score from other contemporary musicals that likewise hew to the middle-of-the-road. … Amid its convoluted logic, “Paradise Square” has an invaluable asset in Joaquina Kalukango, who delivers an exhilarating, star-making performance as the iron-backed bar owner. In the fiery and show-stopping eleven o’clock number “Let It Burn,” as throughout her entire performance, Kalukango embodies a character that feels organic to personal conviction rather than simply connecting plot points. If only she weren’t alone. The staging, by director Moisés Kaufman, can often feel like a churning exercise in traffic control, with all or most of the sizable ensemble cluttered onto designer Allen Moyer’s rotating black-scaffold set. There’s a random, almost chaotic, shuffle to the succession of scenes, where it’s anyone’s guess who might sing next and why. … Only when “Paradise Square” clears the way for dance, and everything falls away between soles and the floor, does it strike anywhere close to the heart.