Front row, l to r:  Hailee Kaleem Wright, Karen Burthwright and Sidney Dupont; back row, l to r: Chloé Davis, Sir Brock Warren, Jamal Christopher Douglas and Jacobi Hall in Paradise Square. Photo: Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Rep

Paradise Square, an innovative, ambitious and multilayered world premiere musical about the companionable life of Irish immigrants and free blacks in the Five Points slum of New York in 1863, opened on Jan. 10 at the Berkeley Rep to an audience more enthusiastic than was this reviewer.

An abundance of talent was evident both on and behind the stage, and the production itself is of the highest professional caliber, yet the musical seems to lack that ephemeral and mysterious magic quality that makes a show a lasting emotional and memorable experience.

Paradise Square takes place in a bar in the teeming slum of lower Manhattan’s Five Points at which free blacks and the new “famine Irish” immigrants drink and dance in happy harmony. The black bar owner, Nelly (Christina Sajous), has an Irish fiancé, Willie (Brendan Wall), who leaves for the Civil War way too early in the production for us to become attached to him and care much about his departure. Willie’s sister Annie (Madeline Trumble) also operates the bar, while her black husband, Rev. Samuel (Daren A. Herbert) helps runaway slaves escape north through the Underground Railroad.

Willie’s Irish nephew, Owen (A.J. Shively), and a fugitive slave, William Henry (Sidney Dupont), show up at Nelly’s bar, both wanting to occupy the only available bedroom above the saloon. To settle the issue, they hold a dance competition. The play brightens up and lightens up with their talented, lively dancing, choreographed by the gifted Bill T. Jones (Spring Awakening, Fela!).  The Irish step-dancing in which Owen is erect from the waist up though completely flexible from the waist down (think Riverdance), is distinctly different from William Henry’s loose body and supple movements of African-influenced Juba dancing, with its stomping, slapping and patting of the arms, legs and chest. Tap dancing is supposed to have developed from a combination of these two dance styles.

Added to the scene at Nelly’s bar is down-on-his-luck songwriter Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel), who is hired to play piano under a false name. He needs to change his name to overcome Nelly’s objection that Foster’s songs give the impression that all slaves are well and happy on the plantation. So much is made of the political incorrectness of Stephen Foster’s music that one wonders why he is included as a character in the show at all. Perhaps the fact that Foster actually lived in Five Points at that time was just too good a coincidence to pass up. Unfortunately, Foster’s music has been altered so that his tunes are barely recognizable after the team of Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (music), and Nathan Tysen (lyrics) have finished with it.

The nearly three-hour length (including one intermission) of Paradise Square makes the first act a bit too long. The second act picks up the plot and the pace of the action when the new Civil War draft of the Irish, but not the blacks, begins to separate the two groups. A second dance-off brings excitement. Also, tension involving the escaped slave William Henry and his love interest adds a touch of suspense. As New York’s (historically accurate) draft riots tear up the town, Five Points and its inhabitants do not escape the physical and emotional damage.

Paradise Square, first written by Larry Kirwan, had two short off-Broadway runs several years ago. Later, director Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project, 33 Variations), and playwrights Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand, black odyssey) and Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss) came on board. The talent of this group is well-known and obvious in the production. The superb singing and acting, particularly by Christina Sajous, Madeline Trumble, and Jacob Fishel, and the fabulous dancing by Sidney Dupont and A.J. Shively and the ensemble would meet with any audience’s robust applause and approval. However, to make it truly memorable, the story in Paradise Square could use a bit more passion and poignancy, as well as a stronger emotional connection with the characters.

Paradise Square is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre through Feb. 24. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...