In hindsight, it now looks inevitable that the influence of pap TV shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance would seep into the production of a 21st-century musical like Paradise Square (at Berkeley Rep, through Feb. 24). Moisés Kaufman, the director, plants one singer center stage, has them belt out a melismatic solo, then ushers the next actor on without providing enough context to connect the story or the songs together. The enthusiastic audience earnestly claps for all of the vocal acrobatics but collectively the book (by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan, with music by Kirwan and Jason Howland) and the lyrics (by Nathan Tysen) don’t form a unified dramatic purpose. Because there are so many characters, each song only serves as an introduction. They’re equivalent to Hamilton’s “My Shot” but, unlike the fleshed out arc of his story, the spotlight shines on each character here only temporarily.
It’s a disposable approach to narrative, in that, the songwriting oddly truncates the melodrama and, at the same time, accelerates it. Between those two distant poles, there’s no room for the audience to get attached to the myriad characters marching backwards and forwards across the stage. Set in 1863 during the American Civil War, Paradise Square sets up a race war that will be decided by … a dance competition. The complicated matters of slavery, and class and gender inequality, are boiled down to and worked out through the devices of a reality television show. The conceit is a mismatch for the subject. Meanwhile, the characters’ strident emotional lives, both male and female, hit one histrionic note after another. In comparison with Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change — another musical that contends with race relations — it lacks that work’s nuance and meaningful specificity. Bill T. Jones‘ choreography, however, is more varied and expressive. Watching his dancers causes an adrenaline rush that vanishes much too quickly when they’re not in motion.
The high-stepping competition comes down to two clans: Irish immigrants versus African-Americans. Each is represented by their best dancer. Owen (A.J. Shively) has just sailed in from Ireland to Paradise Square, his Uncle Willie’s (Brendan Wall) Manhattan saloon. William Henry (Sidney Dupont) is also a recent arrival from Tennessee. He’s an escaped slave who was sheltered along the Underground Railroad with help from the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish (Daren A. Herbert) and his wife Annie (Madeline Trumble). Owen’s Uncle Willie and Aunt Annie are siblings who, it turns out, are both in interracial relationships. Before Owen steps into the bar with his high-waisted pants and a rucksack over his shoulder, Willie has already left for the war, entrusting his business to his sister Annie and his fianceé Nelly (Christina Sajous).
When Willie gives his departing speech to Nelly, “I’ll marry you after I come back from the war,” we all know the marriage will never take place. And, as expected, he dies in a battle shortly thereafter. We have to believe in the depth of their love after seeing them together in one short scene. If they’d had a duet to establish their relationship, without the cast of thousands circling and causing a hubbub around them, Nelly’s grief might have resonated. Not that Sajous doesn’t work hard to communicate her character’s sadness and rage. But there’s so much going on plot-wise that Nelly’s personal story is swallowed right up. When Sajous sings her big number “Let It Burn,” her voice is majestic. The problem is that Sajous is selling the song while standing in the void where our connection to Nelly’s character should be.
Nelly is an African-American woman, in a relationship with a white Irish immigrant, then “widowed” and running a business with another woman who was meant to have been her sister-in-law. In yet another subplot, she hires the famous songwriter, and drunkard, Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel) to play the piano. We never find out Nelly’s origins or how she became such a formidable presence. Instead of focusing on the rich backstory of this character, Foster’s estranged wife shows up late in the musical to sing an endgame aria for all of wronged womanhood. Evita included a similar song, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” but it doesn’t further tilt the show off balance the way that “Janey with the Light Brown Hair” does.
Paradise Square goes on to recycle the treacly bombast of Les Misérables. Tensions rise between the Irish and the African American communities when the government issues a draft notice. Strikes and a riot ensue. Lines of men and women move and gesticulate with torches, banners, and tools. This imagery means to evoke the dawn of socialism when the common man stood up to and stared down authority — but here looked as comical as the helter-skelter mob scene going after the monster in Young Frankenstein.
Even before Nelly and Annie take charge of the bar, the opening number asks us to remember or honor Paradise Square, and the Five Points neighborhood where it’s located, as a haven for different races and societal outcasts to mingle freely. It’s troubling then that it takes a spoken word coda at the very end of the musical for someone to clearly articulate this statement of purpose that gets tossed about and then lost on the dance floor.
Paradise Square, through Feb. 24 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $40-$115; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org