Jerome Kern once said, “Irving Berlin is American music.” In an earlier era, the same could have been said of Stephen Foster, who wrote plaintive melodies and haunting lyrics that are still sung more than a hundred and fifty years later. Berkeley Rep’s new musical Paradise Square bills itself as based on the songs of Foster, and it features big names among its creators and production staff (though none bigger than Foster): Moisés Kaufman (the director and co-creator of The Laramie Project) directs, the legendary Bill T. Jones choreographs, and there are additional luminaries who worked on the material. The show was originally conceived by Larry Kirwan under the name Hard Times (after the Foster song); producer Garth Drabinsky bought the rights and brought in playwright Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss and the book for The Light in the Piazza) for a rewrite, and then brought in another playwright, Marcus Gardley (black odyssey), for a final rewrite.
Having recently seen Conor MacPherson’s heartbreaking Girl from the North Country, wherein MacPherson wove existing songs by Bob Dylan into his Depression-era tale of loss and heartbreak (Kern’s approbation could easily apply to Dylan for the second half of the twentieth century), I was hopeful that Paradise Square might be able to do the same service for Foster’s songs.
Paradise Square doesn’t actually use Foster’s tunes, it adapts them. You may hear a Foster lyric, but it’s set to different notes (sometimes vastly different). You may hear a Foster tune, but it most likely features completely rewritten words. (The music is credited to Kirwan and Jason Howland. Howland is the composer of the 2005 musical version of Little Women. The lyrics are credited to Nathan Tysen, who did similar duties for Amélie and Tuck Everlasting. They are all gracious enough to say their work is “based on” Foster’s.)
As Kirwan, Lucas, and Gardley have set it up, it’s 1862 and Paradise Square is a saloon in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan, a slum built on a cesspool, where anything goes as far as vice, but also where free blacks and Irish immigrants live in relative accord. A pair of mixed-race couples, Irish immigrant Annie (Madeline Trimble) and her African-American husband, the Reverend Samuel E. Cornish (Daren A. Herbert), Annie’s brother Willie (Brendan Wall) and his fiancée, Nelly (played by understudy Gabrielle McClinton the night I saw it), run the place, but when Willy is killed in the Battle of Fredericksburg, Nelly essentially manages the joint herself. Annie helps out, but she and the Reverend are also occupied aiding fugitive slaves as they proceed along the Underground Railroad. One such is William Henry Lane (Sidney Dupont), who has a price on his head and has been separated from his love, Angelina Baker (understudy Hailee Kaleem Wright). (Lane is an actual historic figure, a free-born black man, who combined early African-American dance moves with Irish step dancing and is celebrated as the originator of American tap-dancing. He died in 1852; the authors take many liberties to include him here.) Because this isn’t enough plot, Annie’s nephew Owen (A.J. Shively, recently seen in the touring production of Bright Star) arrives from Ireland, and none other than Stephen Foster himself (Jacob Fishel), broke and estranged from his family, becomes the house piano player. He does so under an assumed name, because of course, African-American Nelly has no use for the romantic plantation minstrelsy of Stephen Foster. She’s woke, dammit. Add a dance contest between Owen and William and the 1863 draft riots to all this, and things are just bound to heat up. Or not.
Despite all the research and all the talent (there are 32 cast members) involved in this huge production, there’s not a single believable instant on stage. Everybody shouts, everybody screams, everybody is really angry. This show’s been cranked up to eleven, but there’s nothing worth hearing, save for a stray Foster refrain here and there. Foster’s classic songs are shoehorned (and deformed along the way) into a big, noisy Broadway musical à la Les Miz, but with lots of unartful racial conflict and heaps of bad dialog. “You’re stuck between a rock and hard place,” William tells Owen. So’s the audience. “What makes a crowd become a mob?” a character asks to open the second act. Uh, a bad script? Foster’s classic “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” written for his wife, transforms into “Janey with the Light Brown Hair,” and it’s actually sung by his spouse (Kennedy Caughell), who’s hunted him down to castigate him for not sending any money (she also blows his cover with Nelly), but now the song’s a big-belting Feminist anthem. My favorite Foster, the achingly sad “Why, No One to Love?” survives with its melody mostly intact, but is retitled “Someone to Love” with rewritten lyrics that lessen its beauty and dull its ache.
But it’s not just the lousy material that’s forced on Foster’s songs, it’s all the contemporary ideas about race and politics spoken by characters who would have no conception of our current problems and our ways of speaking about them. Gardley is careful to let us know that he isn’t gonna fall for any racist claptrap. One Irish character who decides he can’t stand the race-mixing one more minute, goes off saying, “People will follow me because I say they the things they’re thinking, but are afraid to say,” and you can almost hear the audience thinking “Ah, Trump.”
Nowhere is the ill fit of contemporary “wokeness” more evident than in Gardley’s (and Nelly’s) treatment of Foster. It’s clear he agrees with Nelly that Foster is a weak-willed, racist asshole. Nelly’s denunciation of Foster’s music—it romanticizes plantation life, it employs offensive dialect, much if it was written for blackface minstrel shows—is absolutely true, but it’s only a part of the truth. When a silly white woman tells Foster that she just loves “Old Black Joe” and “Swanee River,” we know she’s really saying, “I’m a racist!” Here’s Gardley from an interview included in the program: “What’s interesting about what we’re doing, in terms of appropriation, is that we’re taking Stephen Foster’s music and rearranging it so that it is more comfortable for the contemporary ear. [!] That way, we can talk about why it’s problematic. [!] If I were to be writing a musical and every song has a lyric that makes people uncomfortable because it’s racist, then I would be shut down.” Every Foster song has a racist lyric? “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”? “Beautiful Dreamer”? Paul Robeson thought highly enough of “Old Black Joe” to record it, although he did make a single change to the lyrics, changing “Old Black Joe” to “Poor Old Joe.” Mavis Staple’s rendition of “Hard Times” is devastating, wear and struggle inherent in every gorgeous note.
But Gardley is willing to make a concession: “There’s something about Stephen Foster’s melodies that does qualify, in my mind, him as a great artist.” Good to know, but why then botch his airs with “improvements”?
If only Kaufman and Gardley had paid as much notice to the artistry of their piece as they did to the politics. They’re so busy getting the correct messages across that they fail utterly to evince any humanity in their characters. Kaufman’s direction is a mess. The cast plays emotions instead of objectives, and people wander across the back and front of the stage at odd moments. The show’s main impression is one of assault, tinny ideas bellowed at maximum volume. Bill T. Jones’ choreography, incorporating Irish step dancing (several of the cast members are veterans of the Riverdance show) and the thigh-slapping, hand-clapping, and sinuous moves of early African-American dance, is often impressive (and the ensemble features some amazing dancers, Shively and Dupont chief among them), but the dance sequences aren’t well integrated. Energy flags before a number starts and deflates after it ends. And the effort the cast expends in dance starts to blend with the all too obvious work they’re doing when they yell their lines or bleat their songs. Fatigue all around is the result.
To spend more words bashing this show would be pointless revenge for the bashing it gave me, so let me end with a little grace, the final stanzas and chorus of Foster’s “Why, No One to Love?”
Dark is the soul that has nothing to dwell on!
How sad must its brightest hours prove!
Lonely the dull brooding spirit must be
That has no one to cherish and love…
Many a fair one that dwells on the earth
Who would greet you with kind words of cheer,
Many who would gladly join in your pleasures
Or share in your grief with a tear.
No one to love.
No one to love.
Why, no one to love?
Where have you roamed in this beautiful world,
That you’re sighing of no one to love?
Paradise Square continues through March 3, 2018 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For more information, go to https://www.berkeleyrep.org.