You may have to go back to “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” to find a brothel with more kick-up-your-heels fun than what’s now on stage at “Paradise Square.”
It’s doubtful, despite all these dancing prostitutes and their johns, that the Encores! series will have to rewrite this show 50 years from now to make it politically correct. In “Paradise Square,” which opened Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, those sex workers and their madam, Nelly (Joaquina Kalukango), come bubble-wrapped with enough important issues to placate the most hardened moralist. Nelly isn’t exploiting the women who service the uptown politicians. She’s just an equal-opportunity employer during the Civil War in that ethnically diverse part of downtown Manhattan that was once known as the Five Points.
Before a race riot torches her joint late in the show, Nelly also provides room-and-board and a job to an Irish immigrant, Owen (the high-stepping A. J. Shively), as well as a runaway slave, Washington (the equally high-stepping Sidney DuPont), who has a $300 bounty on his head. Nelly is such a saint despite being a female pimp that even her chief barmaid, Annie (Chilina Kennedy), boasts a preacher for a husband (Nathaniel Stampley in strong voice). People of African or Irish descent populate the Five Points, interracial marriage is the norm, and Paradise Square is a bar-brothel where everybody knows your name. They also dance a lot to Bill T. Jones’s athletic choreography, which is part Katherine Dunham and part Riverdance with a tour en l’air thrown in here and there. Moises Kaufman’s direction doesn’t so much meld these dances into the narrative as set them aside as show-stopping numbers. The plus here is that the chorus doesn’t sing much when they’re dancing.
Nelly’s Paradise Square is the place to be until President Lincoln gets the bright idea to institute a draft. African Americans are exempt, and rather than seeing this as a perk the way gays once did, they want to fight. The Irish immigrants not so much. Uncle Abe especially wants Owen, even though he’s just off the boat. If only Owen had $300 to pay off the draft like those rich Anglo-Saxon Protestants living uptown.
Faster than she can say Mickey & Judy, Nelly decides to hold a dance contest where the winning prize just happens to be $300 and she can sell lots of booze (not mentioned is her percentage of what the whores make) to help pay the trumped-up fines levied on her illegal business by an evil politician and erstwhile customer named Frederic Tiggens (John Dossett).
“Paradise Square” has so many big issues crammed into it that the book writers (Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan) leave no room for characters. Tiggens and a disgruntled ex-soldier, Lucky Mike (Kevin Dennis), are bad. Nelly and most everybody else are ready to be canonized. Especially noble is the lesbian couple (Kayla Pecchioni and Camille Eanga-Selenge) who help Washington’s girlfriend (Gabrielle McClinton) escape slavery in the South.
Being much less nice, I had to wonder during intermission about the $300 prize money and the $300 bounty. Didn’t Nelly think about fixing the dance contest to make a little more money? Didn’t Annie or Owen think about turning in Washington to collect that bounty? No one is suggesting they do such horrible things. But didn’t they just think about it?
The more pressing question is, why doesn’t someone think to tell poor Washington that Tiggens is in the audience the night of the big dance contest?
Kaufman moves this sweeping story with great efficiency on Allen Moyer’s massive multi-tiered set. The performances under his direction are scattered all over the Broadway map, from Kalukango’s star-making turn to Dossett’s understated villain to Kennedy’s brassy performance. She brings to mind another over-the-top Irish lass, Patty Duke’s Neely O’Hara in “Valley of the Dolls.” All that’s missing is an overwrought drug overdose.
“Paradise Square” marks Garth Drabinsky’s return to Broadway as producer. His time away from the boards has done nothing to wean him off ponderous anthems. This show, like his “Ragtime” before it, is chock full of them. The songs by composer Jason Howland and lyricists Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare (additional music by Kirwan) start small and inevitably end with a blast of sound, the last few bars of each being hollered by the singers.
The credits reveal that the show is “inspired in part by the songs of Stephen Foster.” The songwriter gets no thanks from the book writers, who deem his music racist. Actually, the little bit we hear of those simple Foster ditties is a relief from the bloated tunes surrounding them. Whether the characters are happy or sad, pissed off or just in a funk, they’re simply thunderous when they sing. Best of the songs is Nelly’s fiery “Let It Burn,” not to be confused with “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” How much more effective it would be if not preceded by so much aural bombast.