There is a smooth as hell flow and a succulent ease that kicks off the opening moments of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere musical “Paradise Square.” And while there are gorgeous tableaus and richness all over the stage, the true beauty of the show lies in the movement, the geometry of a space that functions in its highest places as a choreography battleground.
The story of Stephen Foster’s music has a complicated, conflicted and, let’s be honest, racist history, complications that are broached in the production via some very effective performances, namely Foster (a solid Jacob Fishel), who is immersing himself in the citizenry on the cusp of the changing world of New York’s Five Points in the early 1860s. His songs move forward in the local watering hole, where the bar’s matriarch runs a tight ship, providing solace to those who need a little something to get by.
Foster is looking for a gig and a piano, and in this venue, he finds both. And yet, even though his music has seen commercial success, it’s his reputation among African-American contingent in Five Points that is less than stellar, so much so that he doesn’t hesitate to give himself another name in order to hide from the music he built on the backs of Black folk.
“Paradise Square” has a ton going for it, starting with plenty of thoroughly rich and solid performances. And while the story seems to stall a bit, especially in a long first act that’s slower than it needs to be, there are a plethora of fantastic performances, led by innovative tableau artist and director Moisés Kaufman, to overcome some of these moments of lull.
There is no doubt that Foster’s unmistakably large contribution to American music is vast. But just as importantly, his influence is complicated, especially to African-Americans. Foster’s tunes, songs like “Swanee Ribber” and the inclusion of the word “darkies,” with its perceived glorification of slavery and plantation life, is a phenomenon that does not sit well with the bar owner “Nelly” (a commanding Christina Sajous). She makes it clear that she holds no warm and fuzzies for what Foster has done to her community, yet Foster pushes forward his case that he means no ill will towards African-Americans, but just the opposite. He is inspired, motivated to write the songs he wrote because of his glowing observations, which makes for an interesting spin on appropriating a culture’s music. These issues are effectively broached in the book by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan.
But there is also one other thing that is left with no doubt, and that is what this show is built on. Certainly, beautiful songs such as “Angelina Baker” and the newly discovered gem “Beautiful Dreamer” are delectable compositions full of rich harmony and richer significance. But where the production gets its legs is through its legs.
The choreography of Bill T. Jones is beautifully nuanced, viscerally jubilant and pulses mightily through the core of the audience. Whether it was the ferocity of the Irish dancing, led by Owen (a fantastic A.J. Shively) or the pulsing, pugilistic grace of William Henry (Sidney Dupont), seeing the role dance played in those later 1800s and how it has influenced today’s modern movement is quite thrilling.
Despite the moments that lack bite from the script with its many subplots, the conflict that tightens in this tight neighborhood are loaded with daggers and a disconcerting feeling of foreboding. Some of the lines are just plain chilly, our current national rhetoric providing an eerie context to the story.
I mean, consider this line, for starters, when a dance contest is won in what the Irish considered a hometown decision. Sure, a Black man might have won the battle, but the White people there have bigger victories on their minds – “People will follow me because I am not afraid to say what they are thinking,” thundered a white Irishman.
Or even a moment when another poignant observation was made – “Fear was ripping us apart, but now we’re doing it to ourselves.”
At its best, “Paradise Square” looks at our complicated history of race through the prism of our living soundtrack and asks essential questions in the process. The effectiveness of the script puts the responsibility of our world in our own laps, allowing us to decide which world we want to live in. The progress we’ve made in the way we love our neighbor should be light years ahead of where we were in 1863, but sadly, it doesn’t always feel like that. Honestly, just like the characters in the 1860s, the world we started with seemed to be pretty swell, but the one we are living in now ain’t so pretty.
That final moment might feel a bit too milquetoast for my liking, but it’s hard to gloss over what an exercise like the one we just witnessed comes down to.
“Paradise Square” is a reminder that the prettiness we lost can be found again. We just can’t let fear keep us from looking for it.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Paradise Square”
Book by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan
Music by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan
Lyrics by Nathan Tysen
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
The Word: A bit too much lull in Act I, but an effective and interesting piece that soars on the music of Stephen Foster and the sweet choreography from Bill T. Jones
Stars: 4 out of 5
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Running Time: Two Hours, 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Through Feb. 24th
Tickets range from $40 – $115
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org