Home Emotional music Two new musicals delve into America’s past but fail to strike gold

Two new musicals delve into America’s past but fail to strike gold


NEW YORK — For a pair of great new musicals that undermine America’s past, history has not been kind.

“Paradise Square,” set amid the New York Draft riots of 1863, and “Suffs,” the story of the women’s suffrage movement that led to the passage of the 19th Amendment, are battling for dub gold. theater in a musicalization rich in exhibitions. Panoramic portraits such as these require creative vision to convincingly reduce emotional focus, so that in the fast unfolding of turbulent events, the people who populate them do not get lost in the mess.

No musical comedy achieves this crucial goal. “Paradise Square,” which had its official opening Sunday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway, favors fast-paced dancing over meaningful insight. “Suffs,” which marked its opening Wednesday night at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater (though Wednesday’s performance was canceled at the last minute due to covid cases in the cast), devotes more initiatives to showing its research than to develop his characters. In other words, both shows are broad rather than deep.

Radical portrayals of historical events must be carefully calibrated on a human scale, emphasizing psychological clarity as well as humor. Without these items, you are back in eighth grade social studies. Lin-Manuel Miranda has done his fellow songwriters a favor by showing them how to add spectacular flavor to the story of the American Revolution. And while not every production can or should be “Hamilton,” Miranda’s instinct for balancing scholarship and entertainment is a model worth deliberately taking to heart.

“Paradise Square,” directed by Moisés Kaufman and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, substitutes energy for illumination. It’s a dizzying thicket of dance breaks and chorus numbers, modeled not particularly elegantly on other Broadway epics, including “Ragtime” and “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.” A more appropriate title might have been “Overkill: The Musical”.

The theater is more than ready for a spring reseeding

At the center of Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan’s story is Nelly O’Brien, the owner of a popular watering hole in Five Points, a rowdy, ramshackle slice of Lower Manhattan inhabited by black people from the working class and Irish immigrants. . Played by Joaquina Kalukango, Nelly is tough and magnetic. And in a show with more personality and less baggage, she would be a galvanizing touchstone.

As it stands, “Paradise Square” has too many threads to unravel. To name a few, the class and racial hostilities of the time; resentment of the Union’s Civil War conscription policy; the fate of enslaved people who escape to Canada; the corruption of the white political establishment; the ever-present specters of poverty and civil unrest. If all that isn’t enough, 19th-century American composer Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel) shows up on Nelly’s doorstep, under an assumed name, to finally play one of his songs, “Angelia Baker” – which is also the name of the former slave woman, played by Gabrielle McClinton, who is on the run after being implicated in the murder of a brutal white slaver.

No wonder “Paradise Square” is itching to make your own faster release? With its enormous cast, intricately costumed by Toni-Leslie James, and elaborate dance sequences, set to vigorously generic music by Jason Howland, the show would undoubtedly look good at the Tony Awards. However, any snippet is bound to be more satisfying than the sum of the loaded parts of this musical.

“Suffs” is the brainchild of Shaina Taub, a dynamic talent who has thrilled audiences with her dynamic performances of Shakespeare in Central Park. She stars in the musical as Alice Paul, the tireless suffragist organizer who might have been the inspiration for the creation of “Nevertheless, She Persisted.” With Leigh Silverman directing and Raja Feather Kelly choreographing, Taub surrounded herself with wonderful Broadway musicals. theater luminaries – Phillipa Soo, Nikki M. James, Jenn Colella among them – for an account of the successful campaign to win women’s suffrage.

The academic rigor with which Taub charts the progress and setbacks of the cause from about 1913 to 1920 might even earn him a term somewhere; you wouldn’t be surprised if the program came with footnotes. Much of the score—Taub wrote the book, the music, and the lyrics—is written in recitative, giving “Suffs” an operatic quality. But the melodic variation occurs in too narrow a range, which often has a boring effect on proceedings.

Taub’s idea of ​​casting 20 female actors in all roles is a smart one: for once, it’s really his history. (The musical’s main target of disdain is stubborn and sexist President Woodrow Wilson, aptly portrayed as a sneaky clog by Grace McLean.) Taub also does an admirable service by documenting the friction within the ranks, embodied in the disdainful treatment by Paul and other white suffragists from black leaders of the movement such as journalist Ida B. Wells.

James’s Wells, like Soo’s Inez Milholland and Colella’s Carrie Chapman Catt, feature prominently in the story, but none of them appear as more than flesh-and-blood cutouts in a teeming diorama. Occasionally we see a glimpse of the emotional toll of their extraordinary achievement, as in the ballad given to one of Paul’s exhausted suffragist sisters, Lucy Burns (the excellent Ally Bonino), explaining that she is leaving the movement. because she gave all she can give.

“Suffs” could use this kind of moment more, when we feel we are getting closer to the characters and not just flipping through a textbook. Here and in other aspects of Taub’s burgeoning career, the songwriter-lyricist reveals she has a lot to say. The disappointment tonight is trying to say it all.

place of paradise, music by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare, book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Kirwan. Directed by Moisés Kaufman. Choreography Bill T. Jones; sets, Allen Moyer; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Jon Weston; projections, Wendall K. Harrington and Shawn Edward Boyle. With AJ Shively, Chilina Kennedy, Sidney DuPont, Nathaniel Stampley, Kevin Dennis, John Dossett. About 2 hours 50 minutes. At the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 W. 47th St., New York. download.com.

enough, book, music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Choreography, Raja Feather Kelly; musical direction, Andrea Grody; decor, Mimi Link; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Sun Hee Kil. With Nadia Dandashi, Grace McLean, Ally Bonino. About 2 hours 45 minutes. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. publictheatre.org.