It’s about midway through the first act, and we see a full ensemble take the stage. Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango) has introduced the house pianist, Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), and her saloon’s two-star dancers — Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively) and Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont). Owen is an Irish Immigrant, and his community surrounds him on one side to join him in dance. Washington Henry is a member of the Black community in the neighborhood, and those present surround him on the other side. As the music picks up, the lights shine down on Owen to showcase his dancing talents. When the lights switch to Washington’s side, Owen and his dancers freeze, and the back and forth continues.
However, when the lyrics pick up and the ensemble sings a riff on the popular tune Oh, Susanna, everything starts to change. As this famous American classic rings out, we see the two sections start to combine. Members of both communities dance together, and the entire stage is flooded with jaw-dropping choreography – full of all kinds of jumps, twists, and turns. Conflict may be building outside the saloon but within, the room is filled with absolute joy and laughter. Emotions were infectious at this Opening Night performance, encouraging audience members to clap and laugh along.
Broadway in Chicago Presents Paradise Square
With music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare, this musical takes place in New York City in 1863. It’s the midst of the Civil War, and draft laws have brought major conflict to the city – particularly when it comes to who is forced to fight on behalf of the slaves in the south. Nelly O’Brien’s saloon, Paradise Square, has always offered a safe haven for communities to gather. However, as the conflicts with the War rise, everyone is forced to pick a side. Nelly may find that nothing will ever be normal again.
Directed by Moises Kaufman, Paradise Square is comprised of an original score featuring a wide range of music: some adapted from American classics like Oh, Susanna and I’m Coming; and others that will be completely new to audiences including Angelina Baker, Ring, Ring the Banjo, and I’d be a Soldier.
Bill T. Jones’ choreography alone is a reason to see this musical, in this writer’s view. If you who enjoy flashy, over the top numbers that consume the stage – showcasing a range of talents performing traditional Irish dancing to acrobatic feats, you will find that Paradise Square does not disappoint.
Add to this, standout musical soloists that carry the score so ably. . In Let it Burn, Joaquina Kalukango as Nelly O’Brien takes center stage with the ensemble behind her. Design is fairly simple, with a spotlight on her as she sings this dark, emotional number about the state of the neighborhood – acting as a warning for what it could become. As Kalukango reached the climax of the song at this Opening Night performance, the audience literally jumped to their feet with a unanimous standing ovation. As she sang the last note, the cheers almost rivaled her volume, and continued on for minutes following.
This is a new musical, and this writer is sure that the book will continue to be finessed and finetuned as the project moves to New York. However, it is already clear that the catchy score includes several memorbable songs.
With unforgettable choreography and a score that will stick with you, Paradise Square is one to catch while it’s still on the ground floor.
Features direction by two-time Tony Award nominee and National Medal of Arts winner Moisés Kaufman (I Am My Own Wife, The Laramie Project), choreography by two-time Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!), and a book by Christina Anderson (Good Goods, Inked Baby), Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand), Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza) and Larry Kirwan (lead singer of Black 47). Musical staging is by Alex Sanchez (Far From Heaven, City Center Encores!)
Running through December 5, 2021
Tuesdays - Fridays at 7:30 pm
Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00 pm
Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:30 pm
James M. Nederlander Theatre
24 W Randolph St.
Chicago, IL 60601
About the Author: Lauren Katz
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.