Too many cooks spoil the melting pot

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday January 15, 2019
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(Front:) Daren A. Herbert (Rev. Samuel E. Cornish) and Sidney Dupont (William Henry Lane) in the world premiere of "Paradise Square: A New Musical" at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
(Front:) Daren A. Herbert (Rev. Samuel E. Cornish) and Sidney Dupont (William Henry Lane) in the world premiere of "Paradise Square: A New Musical" at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

During the mid-19th century, the Manhattan neighborhood of Five Points offered an optimistic glimpse of our country's melting pot potential. Free blacks and Irish immigrants lived and worked together there, building families and community. But their tight-knit social fabric began to fray when the Union Army's Civil War draft was instated. Irishmen who had applied for U.S. citizenship were called to put their lives on the line in the battle against slavery, while their neighbors of African descent were deemed unfit for the fight.

That's the fascinating, complex and little-known episode of American history at the heart of "Paradise Square," the ambitious, long-aborning musical now in its latest stage of gestation at Berkeley Rep. But a heartbeat is often difficult to hear through the buzzy, crosshatched brainwaves of a creative team that shows signs of internal discord. The book, credited to three writers — Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan — feels less like a genuine collaboration than an oft-passed baton, covered with everyone's still-distinct fingerprints.

Kirwan is also credited as the show's "Conceiver." His original concept was to explore the life and music of Stephen Foster through the time the iconic American composer ("Camptown Races," "Oh, Susanna," "Beautiful Dreamer") spent living in Five Points, alcoholic, broke and estranged from his family. At some point during the show's more than six years of iterative development, Foster may have been a central character.

But now his story has become a barnacle, clinging to the much more compelling fictional narratives of black and Irish business partners Nelly Freeman (Christina Sajous) and Annie O'Brien (Madeline Trumble), whose Paradise Square saloon is the community's social hub and a station stop on the underground railroad. A wan, anemic Foster (Jacob Fishel, in a thankless role) rents lodgings above the bar and wafts in and out of the action.

His only substantive scenes make up a wildly tangential plotline, a sharp-witted but utterly superfluous peek at minstrelsy and the sheet-music business. It seems to be lingering from a long-gone Foster-centric "Paradise Square." In its current form, the show feels more committed to intellectual showboating than satisfying storytelling. ("Showboat," as it happens, along with "Porgy and Bess" and "Les Miserables," is in the league of populous, tableaux-heavy history musicals that "Paradise Square" seems determined to join.)

While taking pains to weave in clever references to contemporary sociopolitical debates — the role of the 1% in fomenting racial discord among less wealthy populations, the commercial appropriation of ethnic folkways, the shifting legacy of celebrated figures from the past in light of current mores — "Paradise Square" runs out of time to resolve its own plot, ending didactically rather than dramatically.

After nearly two-and-a-half hours, in the midst of an onstage riot, the show starts to wrap up with members of the cast stepping forward, not quite in character, and prosaically describing the fate of the Five Points community over months and years to come.

While some goosebump-inducing dance numbers, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus, and sumptuously layered interpolations of Foster's music by Kirwan and Jason Howland provide occasional oases of real theatrical rapture, "Paradise Square" generally doesn't give its characters or audience much room to breathe.

There's an airless quality to the proceedings, and much of the show feels like it's taking place in a museum vitrine rather than on a stage. Under Moisés Kaufman's ultra-finessed direction, every actor's every movement feels programmed rather than lived. Disney's Hall of Presidents comes to mind.

Producer Garth Drabinsky, whose biggest Broadway success was another American history musical, "Ragtime," has clearly invested heavily in this production. Toni-Leslie James' period costumes and Allen Moyer's enormous rotating tenement sets are visually stunning. But while it treats the eyes and piques the intellect, for the moment "Paradise Square," billed as a "World Premiere," remains a work-in-progress, in need of more soul and fewer concepts. "Paradise" may not be lost, but it's still finding itself.

Paradise Square, through Feb. 24 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets (from $28): (510) 647-2949,