Berkeley Rep premieres a blockbuster, ‘Paradise Square’
Berkeley Repertory Theatre has a blockbuster with its world premiere of “Paradise Square, A New Musical.”
Set in New York City’s squalid Five Points neighborhood during the Civil War in 1863, it captures a moment in U.S. history when Irish immigrants who had fled the potato famine and freeborn and freed black slaves mixed congenially.
Most of the action takes place in the Paradise Square saloon owned by a black woman, the no-nonsense Annabelle “Nelly” Freeman (Christina Sajous). She is assisted by an Irish woman, Annie O’Brien (Madeline Trumble), who is married to a black preacher, the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish (Daren A. Herbert).
Joining them are Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively), Annie’s nephew just arrived from Ireland; and William Henry Lane (Sidney Dupont), an escaped slave from Tennessee.
The final principal is destitute, alcoholic composer Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel), who has abandoned his wife and daughter and becomes pianist at the saloon.
“Paradise Square” composers Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan, with lyricist Nathan Tysen, based the show’s music on Foster’s songs, many of them re-imagined for more modern tastes.
Howland serves as the show’s musical director, while Kirwan conceived the idea for the show.
The book by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan shows how the dance contests so common in Five Points saloons evolved into tap dance and vaudeville.
The fragile rapport between the two groups is shaken when black men replace striking dock workers, most of them Irish.
It then shatters when a Union Army draft is instituted for men, even immigrants, but not blacks. However, a man could avoid the draft by paying $300, a princely sum for poor people but not the wealthy.
Hence, the impoverished Irish became resentful of their black friends, who weren’t subject to the draft, and even more resentful of the wealthy. The widespread riots that broke out became the worst in U.S. history, according to the Berkeley Rep program.
This history unfolds musically with thrilling dances choreographed by Bill T. Jones, with assistance from Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus.
Some of those dances are set to “Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susanna” and “Ring, Ring the Banjo.” The latter features an athletic dance contest between Shively’s Owen and Dupont’s William.
Under the direction of Moisés Kaufman, the acting is outstanding.
There’s also some powerhouse singing, especially by Sajous as Nelly, who brings the house down several times.
Yet the finale is a nicely low-key “Beautiful Dreamer” as various characters tell what happened in the months and years thereafter.
With 32 cast members and an eight-piece band, this is “the biggest show in the history of Berkeley Rep,” artistic director Tony Taccone says in the program.
Kudos also go to Allen Moyer, whose multi-level set design seamlessly facilitates scene changes. Also noteworthy are the lighting by Donald Holder, costumes by Toni-Leslie James and sound by Jon Weston.
Taken together, all of these elements add up to a highly memorable, entertaining theatrical experience that has all the earmarks of a Broadway hit.
Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “Paradise Square” will continue an extra week through Feb. 24 in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.