“Paradise Square: a New Musical” at Berkeley Rep.

“Paradise Square: a New Musical” at the Berkeley Rep.

Carol Benet

A world premiere of a spectacular musical just opened at the Berkeley Rep. and already it has been extended to February 24, 2019, due to sold-out performances.  Currently it is the best show in the Bay Area.  I’m sure it will travel to New York like so many other hit shows that have started in Berkeley (Green Day’s “American Idiot” for one) and moved on to a bigger world.

“Paradise Square” recreates a community of Irish immigrants and African Americans who lived together in a Manhattan neighborhood called “Five Points” in 1863 during the height of the Civil War.  The inhabitants gathered at Nelly’s bar Paradise Square where Nelly (Christina Sajous) opens the play with a woeful ballad “Premonitions” about the hard times to come.  After an ensemble of exciting singing  and dance based on traditions of the two ethnic groups, the story begins when the Irish Union soldier Mike (Kevin Dennis) is about to go to war and he and Nelly promise to marry when he returns.

The story follows the lives of the people in the neighborhood.  The African American Reverend Cornish (Daren A. Herbert) is married to the Irish lady Annie (Madeline Trumble) and her nephew Owen (A.J. Shirley)  fresh off the boat from Ireland is part of the mix.

Side stories such as the fugitive slave William Henry Lane (Sidney Dupont) whom they are trying to get to Canada and his missing lover Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton), Annie and her nephew’s travails, Nelly’s fight to keep her saloon and her sadness upon hearing that Mike died, Stephen Foster’s career, marriage and life, are all part of this multi-layered play. The finale has the entire cast singing one of Foster’s most beloved songs “Beautiful Dreamer” and this points to the semi-idyllic Five Points where color or race was no barrier to love, for a brief time.

The music continues without stop and is like a folk opera where threads of Stephen Foster’s songs are elaborated, transcribed and made into jazzy danceable music for both the Irish step-dancers and the African Americans.

The dancing choreographed by the famous Bill T. Jones, whose troupe comes to Cal Performances almost yearly to appreciative audiences, is one of the reasons for the success of the show.  The Irish step dance is a product of a group called Hammerstep whose co-founder Jason Oremus expertly dances  in this production as he did in the ever popular touring company Riverdance.  He is joined by award winning step dancer Garrett Coleman.  It is the combination of the two traditions, Irish step dance and African dance such as Juba that formed the basis of tap dancing as we know today and as presented in “Paradise Square”.

The music by composers Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan and lyrics by Nathan Tyson create a new form of opera reminiscent of “Porgy and Bess” and more recently “Hamilton” to which it  owes much of is allegiance with its recreation of history. Most delightful are Stephen Foster’s well-known inspired melodies.  Foster lived in Five Points and and is one of the characters in the play.  The run-down alcoholic Foster, played by a very talented actor and singer Jacob Fishel, provides music to the saloons in exchange for room and board.  It is in Five Points that he finds great inspiration for his compositions.  A touching scene where his abandoned wife Janey comes to ask him for support for her and their daughter allows her to sing a beautiful solo based on “Janey with the Light Brown Hair”, one  of Foster’s most famous songs.

History touches current events with this show, whose book was created by Bay Area poet Marcus Gardley, famous playwright Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, composer and originator of the idea for “Paradise Square”.  Anti-immigrant fever is high here.  A strike of the Irish workers shows their resentment to the blacks who they say have taken their jobs.  The riots, the largest ever in New York, pit the poor against the rich in a society of inequality.  There is another deep felt resentment of the whites because  the blacks are not allowed to serve in the army and the others question why they are fighting a war for them without their help. And then there is the question of the rich paying to keep their sons out of the war.  That over 1000 Irish were killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg  because the Irish troupes were sent in first expose thus proving there were many in justices at that time and point to the same inequalities today.making the play very timely.

Moisés Kaufman’s direction is excellent as were his other productions here such as “The The

Laramie Project” both here and on T.V. plus his many awards for Broadway productions. The lively music is presented by a full  off-stage band. t.  Alan Moyer’s set is ingenious as it shows the bar and then rotates to the rooming house and then outside to the street during the strike.   Toni-Leslie James’ costumes and Matthew B. Armenstrout’s wig designs are perfect as well as Donald Holder’s lighting and Jon Weston’s sound, one that does not ring in the ears or bounce off the walls but believably comes from the mouth of the actors.

 

The music is based on  Foster’s songs but only refer to his melodies that are transformed into jazzy, folksy and innovative forms.  Foster was inspired by the surroundings at Five Points located in lower Manhattan and according to the play entered one of his most productive periods during which he wrote many works.  Among the  24 songs in the play are the familiar ones such as “Camptown Races”, “Janey with the Light Brown Hair” and “Beautiful Dreamer”, all with fresh and beautiful renditions.

With its cast of 34. “Paradise Square” is the most ambitious project of the  Berkeley Rep. to date.  It is a fitting send-off for Artistic Director Tony Taccone who has announced his retirement  at the end of the 2018-19 season after 33 years.  He will be difficult to replace.

Tickets berkeleyrep.org or 510 647 2949.

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →