Friday, January 11, 2019

"Paradise Square"

Front: Sidney Dupont and A.J. Shively
Back: Jacob Fishel, Daren A. Herbert and Madeline Trumble
Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Berkeley Rep
Paradise Square
Roda Theatre, Berkeley
January 10th, 2019

I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to new musicals these days, many are based on popular film, television or franchises. Not all, but certainly more than there used to be. And this trend just isn’t for me. So when a new musical comes along that has found its source material elsewhere - in history, in music, in the evolution of movement genres, in exploring the human condition - I’m all in.

If you have a chance to go and see Paradise Square, directed by Mois├ęs Kaufman at Berkeley Rep, take it (the run, which officially opened Thursday night, was recently extended until the end of February). The penetrating story, by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, grabs you from the very beginning and doesn’t let go. The characters entertain in one scene and haunt in another. Combining adaptations of Stephen Foster’s music with original material, Jason Howland and Kirwan’s score, with Nathan Tysen’s lyrics, confronts while it stirs. And the movement! Bill T. Jones’ choreography strikes the perfect balance – innovative, hard-hitting and energetic while still propelling the narrative forward. Because there’s nothing worse in a musical than dance that feels like an unrelated break in action.

As the lights rise on Act I, the audience is immersed in the Five Points neighborhood in 1863 Manhattan, a primarily African American and Irish American community. More specifically, most scenes unfold in and around the Paradise Square saloon, run by Nelly Freeman (a potent performance by Christina Sajous). This gathering spot is a perfect metaphor for this special place. A place where race, culture, gender, money, personal circumstance (or personal demons) dissolve, to be replaced by togetherness, love and empathy. The message of the Paradise Square saloon is that it is for everyone – those seeking shelter, seeking safety, seeking reinvention and seeking a new life. But as the Civil War rages on and the draft is announced, this utopian ecosystem is challenged, and faces permanent upending due to fear.

There was much to love in Paradise Square – so many venerable performances, outstanding designs and of course, the throughline of Foster (portrayed by Jacob Fishel) and his controversial music. Though as one might guess, I had come to see the choreography and the dancing.

Jason Oremus, Jacobi Hall and company
Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre 
African and Irish cultural dance forms are introduced into the space right from the start and would remain at the forefront until the final blackout. The two are of course striking from a visual perspective, especially danced by this stellar cast. One considers the distinct center of gravity in each, the groundedness, the ballon and marvels at the high-speed footwork and syncopated percussion. But as this dancing is set within a musical, I was more intrigued in how it informed the narrative. Jones did not disappoint. During “Camptown Races,” Sidney Dupont (as William Henry) and A.J. Shively (as Owen) engaged in a kind of dance conversation, the two traditions being showcased side-by-side. An atmosphere of simultaneous camaraderie and lively one-upmanship pervaded the stage. The steps and performances impressed, but as the scene continued, you realized that something deeper was underfoot. A fugue was materializing, or with it being two lines of inquiry, I suppose invention is more accurate - the two dance genres were remaining wholly independent and yet experimenting with their interdependence at the same time. There was a sense of sharing and an air of pedagogical exchange, each teaching the other about their dance’s history and syntax. What might emerge from this dialogue?

Sometimes the choreography was less about the steps and more about the stage architecture. Near Paradise Square’s beginning, Jones had the entire cast threading and lacing in intricate patterns during “The Five Points”, symbolizing how their lives and existences were similarly woven together. At other times, the movement fueled an emotional dynamic that was happening onstage, like when the rhythmic percussive dances were used in a more aggressive, confrontational manner to emphasize fighting or violence.

Online Paradise Square is listed as being two hours and fifteen minutes long. I’m not sure that was the case because we left the theater almost at eleven. Though perhaps with it being opening night, intermission may have gone over, and there was a significantly late start. In any event, even if the show clocks in at two and a half hours, that’s a very reasonable length for a two-act musical. Yet even still, the first act could use some editing, because, save the finale, it lagged quite a bit during its final third. And the dance competition that happens towards the end of Act II, when danger, panic and brutality are rising, felt out of place. I read in the program materials that the plot point of the dance contest was historically accurate and all the dancing in the scene was phenomenal. But in that moment, the theatrical container is so weighty and it felt like the story had been transported to a totally different tonal plane. Although maybe a modicum of escape was the whole point, something that the characters needed in order to face the reality of what was happening to each other and to their beloved Five Points.     

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