Berkeley Rep’s pre-Broadway musical has ‘much to praise’
Five Points, a 20-block ‘hood in Manhattan, wasn’t a commune or any other kind of pre-programmed social experiment.
It was, however, a mixed-race community in Civil War days that actually worked.
For a while, anyway.
The newest Berkeley Rep show, “Paradise Square: A New Musical,” depicts what happens to inhabitants of that poverty-stricken, crime-ridden slum when the federal government starts a draft that yanks male Irish immigrants from their families and tenement homes yet bars the African-Americans from serving.
No. the riots triggered by rising racial and economic tensions didn’t leave me or the rest of the opening night audience with a sense of well-being — despite extraordinary performances and stagecraft and the knowledge that the cultural melting pot and blending of music by two tribes had, as Tony Taccone, the company’s artistic director notes in the program, formed the bedrock of tap dance and foreshadowed both jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.
Watching the integration disintegrate was extremely difficult for me, not only because of its historical accuracy but because it reflects too much of today’s America.
And the notion of unfulfilled promise didn’t sit too well either.
The reality-based “Paradise Square,” which hones in on that interracial hot spot, contains much to praise, however:
- Topping all else, dance moves that are utterly stunning, especially the contrasting Irish and Hammerstep choreography by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (as performed magnificently in dueling-dance sequences by A.J. Shively as wannabe white draft-dodger Owen Buignan and Sidney Dupont as black fugitive William Henry Lane).
- The potent yet pure voice of Christina Sajous as struggling but indestructible African American saloon owner “Nelly” Freeman.
- A spectacular ensemble cast of 32 and band of eight that professionally deliver 24 musical numbers.
- Jacob Fishel as the famed but tormented and alcoholic composer, Stephen Foster, and as Milton Moore, his camouflaged-in-his-music alter ego.
- A modernizing of familiar Foster tunes like “Camptown Races,” “Oh Susanna” and “Beautiful Dreamer” that eliminates most of their fluffiness and sameness and overcomes the fact that he wrote many seemingly racist lyrics in black dialogue for minstrels in blackface.
- Costumes by Toni-Leslie James that instantly inform me, without having to check out a character’s skin color, if I’m about to see a step-dancing Irish immigrant in action or a black Juba dancer, a poor tenement dweller or a debutante taking vocal lessons in 1863.
- A flexible, mobile set by Allen Moyer that ideally lends itself to lighting effects by Donald Holder that create swift mood changes.
- Direction by Moisés Kaufman, a gay, Jewish Venezuelan living in New York City who clearly knows something about diversity and tension and wholets character development occur slowly enough so I could understand every nuance.
That, however, leads to the major complaint I have with this almost humorless 135-minute world premiere production, which has both eyes set on Broadway:
The first act is at least 20 minutes too long, causing me to start fidgeting despite so much else being compelling.
With some judicious paring, with perhaps with an overhaul of one scene that feels excessively reminiscent of an anthem from ”Les Miz,” and with some rewrite of a too-quick, somewhat anti-climactic, tacked-on summation of what comes after “entire streets on fire” and some blacks “hanging from trees,” “Paradise Square,” Berkeley Rep’s biggest production ever, could be an indelible theatrical experience.
“Paradise Square” plays at Roda Theatre at the Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley, through Feb. 24. Night performances, 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $28 to $115, subject to change, (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org.