‘Paradise Square’ reviews: ‘Overwrought’ new historical musical stars an ‘amazing’ Joaquina Kalukango

Broadway’s mad dash to the Tony Award nominations began on April 3 with the opening of original musical “Paradise Square,” the first of 17 new productions set to bow this month. Set during the Civil War in Manhattan’s Five Points, “Paradise Square” explores the antagonisms between Irish immigrants and Black Americans during the national conflict and the potential haven for solidarities at the title bar. The musical stars an ensemble cast that boasts Tony Award-nominee Joaquina Kalukango, directed by two-time Tony nominee Moisés Kaufman. The musical runs at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

“Paradise Square” features a book cowritten by Christina Anderson, three-time Tony nominee Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan, and a score with music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare with contributions from Kirwin. Tony-nominee Allen Moyer is the musical’s scenic designer, three-time Tony nominee Toni-Leslie James the costume designer, and two-time Tony winner Donald Holder the lighting designer.

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This latest historical musical received tepid reviews from critics, who appreciated only certain elements of the production. Naveen Kumar (Variety), for one, calls “Paradise Square” a “blunt and belabored history lesson,” a “tiresome mess,” and “wrong-footed from the jump.” He finds that the core of the musical features “a false equivalence between the challenges of working class immigrants and those of the formerly enslaved” and is filled out with a “host of stock characters in a broadly sketched historical setting.” Kumar does mention the show’s highlights, including Bill T. Jones’ “propulsive choreography” and its “invaluable asset” in lead actress Kalukango, “who delivers an exhilarating, star-making performance.”

Jesse Green (New York Times) similarly describes “Paradise Square” as an “uplifting, star-making, overwrought” musical. He faults the score, which “suffers from a mild case of overstatement – whipping up a series of generic rock ballads and throat-shredding anthems,” but even more so the “problematic book,” declaring, “‘Paradise Square’ feels almost authoress despite its many contributors.” Like Kumar, Green singles out both the musical’s choreography, which he calls “a kaleidoscopic crash of contextual styles, including step dance for the Irish characters and Juba for the Black ones,” and raves about the “incredible Kalukango. “Nothing really prepares you for the moment when an actor brings everything she has to the stage and essentially writes what needs to be said while you watch,” he observes, concluding, “It makes you believe in making history.”

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Perhaps even less forgiving, Helen Shaw (Vulture) knocks the musical’s “cloying lyrics” and “unremarkable, middle-of-the-road compositions.” She notes that structurally “Paradise Square” falters due to its main character: “Nelly has been placed in the play’s protagonist position, but the writers can’t think of a single interesting choice to give her.” Even so, Shaw credits the “amazing” Kalukango, who she says “has a voice that blasts through the room like a train going through a junction.”

Based on this response, “Paradise Square” may be relegated to purgatory in the Best Musical contest at the Tony Awards. In a crowded year with nine shows eligible, “Paradise Square” will likely miss out on a bid, as our current combined odds suggest. Our anticipated line-up includes “A Strange Loop,” “Six,” “Girl From the North Country,” “Mr. Saturday Night,” and “MJ the Musical.” “Paradise Square” would not only have to bump out one of those contenders, but also fend off “Flying Over Sunset,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Diana, the Musical.”

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Although “Paradise Square” may not make it into the top category of the night, it has excellent prospects for other nominations, including the incredible turn from its lead actress Joaquina Kalukango. Kalukango earned rave reviews for her performance and will likely receive the second Tony nomination of her career and first for a musical; she previously competed in Best Actress in a Play for “Slave Play.” She currently ranks fifth in our odds for Best Actress in a Musical, trailing category frontrunner Sharon D Clarke (“Caroline, or Change”), Beanie Feldstein (“Funny Girl”), Katrina Lenk (“Company”), and Sutton Foster (“The Music Man”). The category is stacked, though, with Carmen Cusack (“Flying Over Sunset”), Mare Winningham (“Girl from the North Country”), and all six of the “Six” actresses vying for slots, but based on the universal admiration for her performance despite the show’s faults, Kalukango looks like a strong contender.

The other category where “Paradise Square” is likely to land a nomination is Best Choreography. Critics found that the impressive footwork and diversity of styles captured the themes of the musical much more emotionally and intelligently than the book, and choreography Bill T. Jones will likely receive recognition for it. Jones has four past Tony nominations, which include two wins for “Spring Awakening” and “Fela!.” His work currently ranks fourth in our odds for a nomination, but that position doesn’t reflect just how competitive he could be for the win.

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