While the name Stephen Foster might not immediately ring a bell, his tunes will ring plenty — from “Camptown Races” to “Oh! Susanna” to “Old Folks at Home” (better known as “Swanee River”), Foster is commonly hailed as the first American professional songwriter. The second verse of “Oh! Susanna” is now often omitted to exclude its use of the N-word, which was not the white songwriter’s only use of the slur. Some of his most well-known songs were written through a Black man’s perspective and were popularly used in the minstrel shows of his day.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of “Paradise Square: A New Musical” doesn’t vilify Foster, one of its characters, nor does it erase the historical context in which he worked (as this context is, after all, the musical’s primary focus). The musical’s narrative also, wisely, refuses to appoint him — a non-immigrant and non-Black man — the protagonist of its story, emphasizing instead the Irish immigrants and Black Americans who (for a time) harmoniously lived in the New York slum of Five Points, along with Foster.
Berkeley Rep’s decision to decenter the musical’s fictionalized Foster (the protagonist of its basis, “Hard Times: An American Musical”) is seemingly contradicted by the fact that the musical’s score is entirely based on Foster’s music, modernized and theatricalized for contemporary audiences. The musical’s process of updating the classics isn’t always seamless, but it’s undeniably effective. Many a diddy tune is turned into a show-stopping number in a testament to the talents of Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (music and arrangements) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics).
Foster (Jacob Fishel) is portrayed as shocked at the recitation of his songs about slavery by a horrifyingly enthusiastic trio of white lady carolers. And yet, for a musical that so readily shows appropriation — by Foster, then by others of his work — this fictionalized Foster keeps the upper hand in debates about his work’s racism. Whether his repertoire could be characterized as systematic appropriation or a series of homages is an engaging and interesting debate, but it’s one that the narrative throws in as an obligatory afterthought in the second act. Importantly, this critique is not of Fishel, who plays Foster with a charming sincerity that makes disliking the figure a battle hard-fought.
For all the controversy depicted in Foster’s subplot, the official plot description of “Paradise Square” lacks any mention of Foster; his photo is but one of 12 faces depicted on the official poster. It’s in the other residents of Five Points that the musical finds its rhythm, vibrancy and voice: in the stories of its residents, stories of interracial love and comradery. At the same time, it conveys a thoughtful and subtle analysis of the political power structures that created and still systematize racism.
Under Moisés Kaufman’s direction, “Paradise Square” is a deliciously complex, stirring musical. The story is brought to life through a mesmerizing scenic design by Allen Moyer, one that’s industrial, bare-bones and still filled with warmth. Choreography by Bill T. Jones brings the cultural elements of the story to life through Irish step dancing, traditional African forms and Juba dancing. True to the musical’s belief in the beauty of sharing culture, the historical symbiosis of these cultures led to the development of tap dancing, which is also heartily used. Jones’ choreography is a marvel when the earnest and skilled Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively) and the breathtakingly talented William Henry Lane (Sidney Dupont) take the stage.
By final curtain, barkeep Annabelle “Nelly” Freeman (Christina Sajous) is finally given her moment in the spotlight, the musical implying that she was the protagonist all along without providing her a solid character arc beforehand. But this solo makes the audience forget that. Sajous emerges as the musical’s true star, demonstrating her overwhelming vocal prowess and providing her character a brilliant send-off after an emotive performance throughout.
Unfortunately for both the musical and this review, this power isn’t fully recognized until the end; until too much time has been spent on Foster; until it’s too late.
“Paradise Square” will be showing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre until Feb. 24.