Paradise Square. A New Musical is a historical story brilliantly told in song and dance.

A.J. Shively (right as Owen Duignan) and Sidney Dupont as William Henry Lane stop the show with their dueling dancing in “Paradise Square.” Photos by Kevin Berne.

PARADISE SQUARE: A NEW MUSICAL. Book by Larry Kirwan, Marcus Gardley and Craig Lucas. Directed by Moises Kaufman. Berkeley Rep’s, Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. CA. (510) 647-2949 or  January 10 – February 24, 2019.

Paradise Square. A New Musical is a historical story brilliantly told in song and dance.

Berkeley Rep has earned the reputation of premiering new musicals that go on to Broadway replacing Boston as the “try out City”. The most famous was Green Day’s “American Idiot” to be followed by “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations” opening next month and the musical version of “Amélie” that is waiting in the wings. There is no doubt that Paradise Square will hit the big time. It is a specific story with universal overtones that have sadly carried forward to the present day.

The specific story takes place in1863 in a section of New York’s Five point tenement district known as Paradise Square where free Blacks and Irish immigrants lived side -by-side becoming friends and even intermarrying.  Most of the action takes place in Almack’s Dance Hall dually owned by Irish immigrant Willie (Brendan Wall) and his intended wife a free woman of color Annabelle Nelly Freeman (Christina Sajous). Patriotic Willie is preparing to go fight in the Civil War. Annabelle and Willie’s sister Annie (Madeline Trumble) married to black Reverend Samuel (Darren A. Herbert) are left to run the place.

Into to this setting arrives Steven Foster who has regrets that his songs have become popular partly because of their unintended racism. He is destitute and is hired as the pianist after taking an assumed name of Milton Moore (Jacob Fisher). Next major characters to arrive are Alice’s nephew Owen (A. J. Shively) from Ireland and fugitive slave William (Sidney Dupont) trying to get  to Canada but will not leave without his missing lover Angelina (Gabrielle McClinton).

The opening number “Premonitions” powerfully sung by Annabella sets the tone for an evening of drama studded with superb dancing and song based on Steven Foster’s music supplemented by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan and further lyrics by Nathan Tysen. With this mixture of talent you will still recognize the Steven Foster basics that are extremely appropriate for the storyline. That storyline (book) is a brilliant patchwork perfectly fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle by the noted luminaries Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan.

Crucial to the story is the first universal drafting of white citizens and immigrants but not blacks. You could buy an exemption from the draft for $300. The riot that initially started as rebellion against the draft turned into a race riot. The rioters turned their anger from the uptown whites to the blacks eventually destroying Paradise Square.

The play is multilayered with a few tender moments before bursting into a pulsating pitch of nonstop dancing and singing. The difference in cultures is expressed in that magnificent dancing. It is the combination of the two traditions, Irish step dance and African (Juba) forming the basis of modern tap dancing.

A dance off between two leads of Irish Owen (A. J. Shively) and fugitive slave William (Sidney Dupont) is a show stopper. However ensemble members Garrett Coleman and Chloé Davis create a duo Irish step dance that is memorable yet seems impossible with lower legs being attached to the knees with rotating joints.

Director Moises Kaufman (of The Laramie Project fame) is excellent keeping his 34 member cast in sync. He is greatly aided by a full off-stage band, Alan Moyer’s ingenious set and the entire creative crew. Running time is two hours an 30 minutes with intermission and is a must see production.

CAST: Karen Burthwright (Ensemble), Kennedy Caughell (Janey Foster), Tiffany Adeline Cole (Swing), Garrett Coleman (Ensemble), Colin Cunliffe (Ensemble), Chloé Davis (Ensemble), Kevin Dennis (Mike Quinlan), Bernard Dotson (Camp Butler), Jamal Christopher Douglas (Ensemble), Sidney Dupont (William Henry Lane), Sam Edgerly (Ensemble), Jacob Fishel (Stephen Foster/Milton Moore), Shiloh Goodin (Ensemble), Jacobi Hall (Levi Butler), Daren A. Herbert (Rev. Samuel E. Cornish), Erin Lamar (Swing), Gabrielle McClinton (Angelina Baker), Ben Michael (Provost Marshal), Jason Oremus (Ensemble), Bridget Riley (Ensemble), Clinton Roane (Ensemble), Celia Mei Rubin (Swing), Christina Sajous (Annabelle “Nelly” Freeman), A.J. Shively (Owen Duignan), Erica Spyres (Ensemble), Madeline Trumble (Annie O’Brien), Mark Uhre (Elmer Woods), Lael Van Keuren (Ensemble), Brendan Wall (Willie O’Brien), Sir Brock Warren (Ensemble), Chris Whelan (Patrick Murphy), and Hailee Kaleem Wright (Ensemble).

CREATIVE TEAM: Allen Moyer (scenic designer), Toni-Leslie James (costume designer), Don Holder (lighting designer), and Jon Weston (sound designer), Matthew B. Armentrout (Hair/Wig Designer), Thulani Davis(Dramaturg), and Hammerstep (Irish Step Choreographers).

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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