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‘Shucked’! “Shucks Ma’am, It’s a Helluva Show!”

Ashley D. Kelley,  Grey Henson in 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
Ashley D. Kelley, Grey Henson in Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

If you love corn and even if you hate it, you will laugh at the jokes about or related to the sunny fruit (official classification), in Shucked, the funny, bright, clever, homespun musical fable/farce about love, corn and deeper things. Shucked is a throwback to delightful Broadway productions that are easily relatable and pack a thematic lunch that is palatable and digestible. The cast twits itself throughout and clues the audience in to the one-liners, puns and spicy double entendres, as they judiciously pause for the raucous audience laughter to subside, then deliver the next quip with a twinkle and no wrinkle.

Shucked has something for everyone with innuendos aplenty. Directed by the seasoned Jack O’Brien (Tony Award® winner for Hairspray), who shepherds his cast toward drop-dead pacing and finely honed delivery to produce maximum laughs, the production currently runs at the Nederlander Theatre around two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission.

(L to R): Alex Newell, Caroline Innerbichler, Kevin Cahoon, and Andrew Durand in 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
(L to R): Alex Newell, Caroline Innerbichler, Kevin Cahoon, and Andrew Durand in Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

With the book by Tony Award® winner Robert Horn (also Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, NY Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Tootsie), and music and lyrics by the Grammy® Award-winning songwriting team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, the show is finding its way to hit status, having received its jet-pack from these talented creatives. Featuring an exceptional cast, whose vocals hit the mark every time, Shucked is a musical that leaves one with a smile on one’s face, and songs thrumming through one’s mind. It’s a delectable corn dog that takes you from “farm to fable.”

Introduced by bubbly, enthusiastic Storytellers # 1 and # 2 (Ashley D. Kelley, Grey Henson), who note many funny, lovely facts about and uses of corn (“Corn”), we learn about Cobb County, the place that time forgot because folks had all they needed and walled themselves off from the outside world, using the “high as an elephant’s eye” corn plants. There, Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler) and Beau (Andrew Durand) are standing at the altar ready to receive their wedding vows when the cataclysm happens. Patches of corn plants decorating various sections of the stage begin to die. How Scott Pask (scenic design) manages this and the corn’s restoration is neatly effective.

Believing that Cobb County’s xenophobia is destructive and their worst enemy in face of this corn dying disaster that threatens their way of life, heroine Maizy identifies the county’s chief problem (“Walls”). It has a fixed and irrational paranoia about strangers, and thus, they avoid the outside world. Maizy decides that she must leave the isolation of their existence and find answers to the corn die off. Not only does this upset her cousin Lulu (Alex Newell), and the riotous Peanut (Kevin Cahoon’s deadpan delivery and twanging accent are sincerely hysterical), her fiance Beau (Durand’s macho know-it-all is humorously harmless), puts his annoyed foot down. He tries to exert his will over her when she expresses her desire to leave. However, she has a point when she tells him Cobb County is too limited to provide any answers. Despite Beau’s directives, Maizy leaves, affirming they will be married after she finds the solution to their corn apocalypse.

Alex Newell in 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
Alex Newell in Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

On her journey from Cobb County, Maizy ends up in Tampa, which the Storytellers conclude is a “humid wonderland of welcoming Tamponians and one douchebag” (“Travelin’ Song”). The number is a clever, humorous build up to the large, bright, neon letters that spell out the city’s name. It is only topped by the city slicker, scam artist Gordy (John Behlmann), a scheming, horse gambling, poseur podiatrist who “removes corns.” Naive Maizy seeks out this scientist and professed expert on corns, not realizing where his “expertise” lies. To make matters worse for Maizy, Gordy is a failed gambler and con (“Bad”). Nevertheless,, the sweet, simple Maizy shows him the rot-ridden ear of corn from home and he promises he might be able to do something.

Sensing an easy way to get out of his $200,000 gambling debt from leg-breaking gangsters, Gordy shows interest in Maizy, after he takes her broken bracelet to jewelers to have it fixed. In a brief, stylized, mini-aside by the all-purpose storytellers, who double this time as disreputable jewelers showing their “range,” (Kelly’s Storyteller #1 quips this), they move the story ahead. They assure Gordy they will buy the unique, valuable stones which can easily be found, “it gathers in clusters like single women in their thirties.” After a seductive dinner and drinks, Gordy produces a perfect ear of corn for Maizy that he tells her he has “fixed.” Of course, she invites him back to Cobb County “to fix” all the corn. Behlmann’s Gordy persists in his romantic seduction to get into Maizy’s rocks underneath the house where she lives.

Thrilled at her own bravery and ability to rectify Cobb County’s corn apocalypse, Innerbichler’s Maizy effectively shows her vocal chops in “Woman of the World.” After the proud, self-satisfied Maizy toots her own horn for bringing back stranger Gordy to meet and save the town, at Beau’s farm Peanut voices his opinion about Beau and Maizy’s love. He quips, “Ever since Maizy came back with this Corn Doctor, you’ve been pissier than a public pool.” In her meet up with Beau to share her “new-found wisdom,” Maizy affirms her sophisticated personality change. In her “pissing-contest” competitiveness with Beau, she lets information slip that devastates Durand’s Beau. He kicks her off his land, then belts out “Somebody Will,” a number that guys can identify with, if they have ever broken up with a long-term partner.

In another women centered number, Lulu (the superb Alex Newell),, belts out a syncopated country tune, “Independently Owned” promoting her whiskey business. As she advertises her autonomy from a man, she warns Gordy to “watch out,” despite her business spiraling downward on an absence of corn supply. Regardless of what happens, Lulu knows who butters her corn. The exchanges among Maizy, Gordy and Lulu, like most of the dialogue in Shucked, are crafted for Henny Youngman/Mae West styled one-liners, with ironic punchlines shot out like rhythmically paced cannon fire. How the actors convey their characters without “pushing it” is authentic and a testament to their comedic brilliance, O’Brien’s direction and Horn’s fine book.

In a winding up toward the end of Act I, Gordy’s situation has a monkey wrench thrown into it. Due to poor cellular connections on two phones, he gets the wrong information which spurs him on in desperation. Over-hearing Gordy’s phone conversations (misinformation), Peanut, Beau and Lulu assess that Gordy is up to no good (“Holy Shit”). How they settle at that conclusion speaks more to their upset that Maizy bravely left and came back with a solution, than hearing the truth. Maizy is forced to defend Gordy’s presence in Cobb County and affirms her faith in him. Alone, she admits she is torn between her feelings for Beau and the possibility of love with Gordy (“Maybe Love”).

The cast of 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
The cast of Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

Shocked into accepting her belief in him, Gordy persuades the townspeople of his ideas about “fixing” the corn (“Corn”). As the song concludes Act I, Maizy accepts Gordy’s proposal of marriage, and we are left for one intermission to guess whether Gordy’s plan to resurrect the corn has efficacy or his inner shyster is getting over to hightail it outta Cobb with some valuable gem stones.

Horn’s book is tightly spun with the songs which slip in messages of love, acceptance, risk taking, hospitality and compromise, with large portions of savory humor in the lyrics. Jason Howland, who is responsible for music supervision, music direction, orchestrations and arrangements, keeps the score country vibrant, so it sounds like a mix of other music genres in its country beats and rhythms. Japhy Weideman lights the barn for appropriate atmosphere, and John Shivers’ sound design is on target. This is tricky in a show like Shucked, which is dependent on a balance of sound throughout the theater for maximum contagious laughter at the quips, puns and double entendres. Mia Neal’s wig design has a modern flavor with a “Hee-Haw” touch to meld with Tilly Grimes patchwork, homespun costume design of plaids, paisleys and “patches,” that appear to be cut out of various “past-their-prime” clothing items.

The cast of 'Shucked' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)
The cast of Shucked (courtesy of Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmermann)

Scott Pask’s barn staging has every item and tool one would imagine on a working farm. The intricate, wooden barn structure remains stationary while Lulu’s whiskey still and paraphernalia are brought out when appropriate for some songs in Act II (the hysterical, ironic “We Love Jesus”). And the playing area is large enough to roll out whiskey barrels for the fantastic “Best Man Wins,” as Beau, Peanut, Storyteller #2 and the ensemble jump on the barrels and stand Beau on a long board and move him around. This is an ingenious and visually exciting dance number configured by choreographer Sarah O’Gleby.

There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see Shucked to laugh until your sides ache and pay attention to what happens to bring the corn back from the edge of doom to bless Cobb County with joy, love and a bit of growth toward letting down their walls to accept strangers (“Maybe Love” reprise). Gee! The corn may be a metaphor for something.

This is one you will enjoy in the moment. And afterward, you may try to remember the songs and the wonderful quips, puns and one-liners that had you chortling in the corn row aisles of the audience. For the deeper meanings and references to our time, perhaps you should see it twice. They are cleverly woven into the themes amd strike fire for their currency.

Shucked runs with an end date in September at the Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st St.). For tickets go to their website:

‘Paradise Square,’ a Breathtaking, Exquisite, Mindblowing, American Musical

(center L-center R): Matt Bogart, Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, Nathaniel Stampley and the ensemble of Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

First there was Lin Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire’s Hamilton which codified our founding fathers through a current lens and brought them into living reality with a new understanding of the birth of our nation. Now, there is the musical Paradise Square which brings to vivid life the embodiment of the American Dream during the Civil War, 1863, after President Lincoln instituted the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.

The phenomenal, complex musical is nothing short of a heart-rending emotional shakedown for feeling Americans at this precarious time in our history. Currently, it runs at the Barrymore Theater creating buzz and furor through word of mouth. With Book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan (conceived by Kirwan with additional music inspired by the songs of Stephen Foster), music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Nalthan Tysen & Masi Asare, the production’s success is a collaborative effort, and that is a testament to the individuals whose creativity and flexibility brought the spectacular, dramatic elements together coherently with symbolic, thematic power.

(center L-center R): Matt Bogart, Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy, Nathaniel Stampley and the ensemble of Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

With the actors, Alex Sanchez’s Musical Staging, Bill T. Jones genius choreography and the enlightened and anointed direction of Moises Kaufman, the demonstrated will and determination to make this production leap into the firmament cannot be easily dismissed or inconveniently dispatched for whatever reason. (reference Jesse Green of the New York Times)

The setting of this thematically current musical takes place in a slum of cast offs and immigrants who are making the American experiment their own and bringing equanimity to New York City like never before. On a patch of ground in the Five Points that is home to saloon Paradise Square, proprietor Nelly O’Brien (the incredible Joaquina Kalukango who champions the character and all she symbolizes), has created her own version of Eden with her Irish American husband Willie O’Brien (the superb Matt Bogart). There, all are worthy and respected.

(L -R): Irish dancers Colin Barkell, Garrett Coleman in Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

Nelly exemplifies the goodness and hope of our American glory and opportunity through hard work, faith and community. Born in the saloon from the oppressed, her father a slave who escaped to the North via the underground railroad, her mixed race marriage is uniquely blessed. It is just like that of her sister-in-law Annie O’Brien Lewis (the superb Chilina Kennedy), married to Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (the equally superb Nathaniel Stampley), a Quaker and underground railroad stationmaster. Both couples have prospered, are decent and shed truly Christian light and love on all they meet.

Nelly, the principals and company present life in “Paradise Square,” in the opening song. This is the seminal moment; book writers establish the overarching theme, the hope of America, an Edenic place where all races and creeds get along without division or rancor.

“We are free we love who we want to love with no apology. If you landed in this square then you dared to risk it all, at the bottom of the ladder, there’s nowhere left to fall,” Nelly sings as the patrons echo her and dance. The opening moments clarify what is at stake for Nelly and all who pass through the doors of the saloon. It is a safe haven, where in other areas of the city, the wealthy uptown, for example, these “low class” immigrant whites, and blacks are unwanted and unwelcome. It’s a clear economic divide which grows more stringent as the war’s ferocity intensifies and money becomes the way in to safety and the wall that directs the Irish and other immigrants to the Civil War’s front lines; one more hurdle to overcome after surviving cataclysms and impoverishment in their home countries.

Joaquina Kalukango, Matt Bogart in Paradise Square (Julietta Cervantes)

Of course, the symbolic reference is not lost and we anticipate that Eden achieved is not Eden sustained, though Nelly has managed to effect her safe place during the first three years of the war. What keeps her energized is her spirit of hope and her dream which she intends to promote throughout the war until her husband, Captain O’Brien of the 69th regiment of fighting Irish, returns once the Union army has won its righteous cause. Nelly and Willie’s touching song and flashback to their first meeting reveals that they are color blind (“You Have Had My Heart”), and move beyond race and ethnicity to the loving, Edenic ideal which uplifts spirit over flesh and lives by faith rather than sight.

At the top of the production Nelly shows a black and white projection of the modern Five Points and the place where her saloon used to be, as she merges the present with the past and suggests she is relating her story, a story that won’t be found in history books. It is a “story on our own terms,” that exemplifies unity in a community of races and religions bounded by love, concern and financial equality as all struggle to make ends meet, and with each other’s help, get through the tribulations of the Civil War’s impact on their lives.

(L to R): Colin Barkell, Chilina Kennedy, Kevin Dennis, A.J. Shively in Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

The exceptional opening song and dance number resolves in a send off of Willie O’Brien and ‘Lucky Mike Quinlan’ (Kevin Dennis) to the battlefield. Both rely on an inner reservoir of faith and Irish pluck, knowing the prayers of the Reverend and all in Paradise Square go before them. The vibrant titular number is uplifting and beautiful as it highlights the American experiment which British royals doomed to failure and Benjamin Franklin ironically stated-our government is “a republic if you can keep it.”

Though the republic has been divided in a Civil War, folks like those who come to Nelly’s saloon believe in nation’s sanctity and are keeping the dream alive, if the South has abandoned it. Indeed, as the book writers suggest, the immigrants and those of passion and heart will hold the dream in their hearts and attempt to manifest its reality because freedom, respect and equanimity is worth dying for. With irony the book’s writers reveal this is something the wealthy do not believe because they don’t have to. Their world rejects the values and ideals of those who people Paradise Square. Without principles worth dying for, the hearts of the Uptowners are filled with greed for power and money. These are the passions that drive the rich, symbolized in the scenes with Party Boss and political strategist Frederic Tiggens (the excellent and talented John Dossett).

(L -R): Sidney DuPont, A.J. Shively in Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

Complications develop when Annie’s nephew Owen (the wonderfully talented A.J. Shively), travels from Ireland at the same time that Washington Henry (the wonderfully talented Sidney DuPont), escapes with Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton). Traveling on the underground railroad from Tennessee, Henry arrives in New York City without his love, whom he waits for, braving the dangers of capture. Owen and Henry joined by Annie and the Reverend, a stationmaster on the underground railroad who receives Henry, all sing (“I’m Coming”). The young men, like hundreds before them, seek freedom and prosperity believing in the opportunities afforded by the shining city.

Reverend Samuel alerts Annie that Henry escaped from border state Tennessee which is not covered in the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, when Henry says he can’t go to Canada, but must wait for Angelina Baker, the Reverend fears for all of them. Nevertheless, guided by faith and Nelly’s extension of grace to Washington Henry, their community stands together and Owen and Henry bunk congenially in a tiny room above Paradise Square saloon.

(L to R): Sidney DuPont, Nathaniel Stampley, Gabrielle McClinton in Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

Additionally, stranger Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), arrives in their society to beg Nelly for a job. Moore, an excellent piano player with a drinking problem, appears legitimate, so Nelly makes a bargain with him and arranges for Owen, Henry and Moore to create dance and song entertainments to earn their keep. The dancing and singing to a cool multi-ethnic version of “Camptown Races” effected by Henry and Owen who are friendly competitors at this juncture, show the prodigious singing and dancing talents of Shively and Dupont. Guided by Bill T. Jones’ brilliant, energetic and enlightened choreography, the dancing in this production is thematic and symbolic, with unique stylized flourishes that shine a light on the exceptional talents of the principals and the ensemble.

Jones showcases the dances with ethnic cultural elements: for Shively and his group-Irish step dancing; for DuPont-Juba African American dancing that evolved from plantation life. Jones’ wondrous evocations are present throughout. When Henry sings “Angelina Baker” we revert to the plantation where both met. Profoundly rendered through Jones choreography and musical staging (Alex Sanchez), the ensembles’ stylized movements evoke the field slaves soul burdened and bowed, as two plantation overseers tap dance the repetitive torment and the beats of slavery’s oppression and pain. Just incredible!

(L to R): Joaquina Kalukango, background-Nathaniel Stampley, Chilina Kennedy and the ensemble of Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

Uptown Party Boss Frederic Tiggens (the excellent John Dossett) is the villainous snake, whose intent is to divide voters, secure political power and keep wages low by targeting the haven of equanimity, Paradise Square. As a disrupter, he focuses on a “divide and conquer” strategy. Stoking division when the opportunity arises, he is hell bent on destroying Nelly’s prosperous Eden which threatens his political power block. Thus, he foments resentment between the Irish and the blacks when he discovers that the Reverend doesn’t fire a worker to give a job to ‘Lucky Mike,’ a war amputee abandoned by the government he fought for. (“Bright Lookout,” “Tomorrow’s Never Guaranteed.”).

Featured dancer Joshua Keith in Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

Enraged at the injustice of not being hired by Reverend Samuel who can’t do what he wants or he will be fired himself, ‘Lucky Mike’ becomes the pawn of Tiggens, who exploits his anger instead of helping him. Expressing the plight of many returning vets then and now, Mike’s anger grows into a raging fire with no outlet until it finally explodes in violence. Tiggens’ trouble-making continues with his connections serving financial writs on Nelly and Paradise Square that must be paid off. When she confers with family about raising money, Owen contributes his cultural grace, suggesting a dance festival competition like they had in Ireland. With the festival Nelly will raise enough to pay off the fines. Once again, Nelly and family resilience and hope shine through the darkness of Tiggens’ political machinations to overwhelm them.

Meanwhile, the Reverend is informed by his Quaker friends that Henry has killed his plantation master in Tennessee and is wanted for murder. The Reverend tells Annie who insists she will accompany him and Henry to the next station on the railroad. The song “Gentle Annie” is a humorous revelation of their marriage: Annie’s feisty character tempered by Samuel’s peaceful nature, their shared values and the closeness of their relationship. Kennedy and Stampley give authentic, spot-on performances that solidify one more link in the ineffable chain of love that helps make Paradise Square (the saloon and the production) a place of unity and grace.

Joaquna Kalukango in Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

A strength of this musical is that the dramatic tension increases and doesn’t let up for a minute. The arc of development in conflicts and intricate, complex themes shows Nelly’s Paradise Square, like Lincoln’s Union strained and stressed. As Tiggens tightens the financial noose on Nelly’s Eden, the announcement of the War Draft threatens the immigrants. Men between the ages of 25-45 must serve, unless they pay $300 dollars to exempt themselves. Lincoln’s conscription is a desperate attempt to revitalize the fight; the Union is on the verge of collapse and the American experiment is in grave jeopardy. Nelly’s dream and Lincoln’s hope of a democratic union run on parallel tracks along with the underground railroad.

For the blacks, the idea that people had inalienable rights and could live together with respect, dignity .and equanimity as a community, the idea that people themselves had the power to sustain such a republic, was keenly felt. Blacks wanted desperately to fight against the Southern oppressors, but were forbidden. (“I’d Be a Soldier”). The Irish, like Owen and the other immigrants, were looking for a better life not war (“Why Should I Die in Springtime?”), but they are ground down by their poverty and question the efficacy of dying for a cause they didn’t create and can’t afford to get out of.

Center: Sir Brock Warren, background (L to R): Garrett Coleman, Colin Barkell in Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

When Owen and the ensemble of Irishmen/immigrants and Henry and the ensemble of blacks sing these numbers, the power of the lyrical music drives home the differences. Both groups embrace the American ideal but are being denied achieving it in reality. As the anger of ‘Lucky Mike’ gains advocacy, it fuels fear in Owen because, for him, the Draft is unjust; he doesn’t have the money. Nelly, for the first time tells ‘Lucky Mike’ to leave her bar as he tries to rally protestors for his (Tiggens propagandized) cause.

As Nelly inspires and encourages her patrons telling them they must not “let the draft break us, that’s what those Uptown bastards want,” an Irishman comes with news that does bow her, Captain Willie O’Brien’s death. But for the Reverend and Annie (“Prayer”), and Nelly’s moral imperative to maintain the saloon’s mission, Nelly would break. As she attempts to gain comfort and inner resolve, the Reverend and Annie confront Henry about murdering his master. In the incredible “Angelina Baker” sung by DuPont with the dancers evoking the Tennessee plantation terrors, we understand his justification for killing.

Nathaniel Stampley, Chilina Kennedy in Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

By the end of Act I, Nelly, Annie, the Reverend, Owen, Henry and the patrons stand on a precipice as the war and malevolent forces threaten to overcome them. Nelly sings, “I keep holding on to hope for a world just out of view, but that hope I have comes at a cost and the cost comes due.” But it is in the song’s refrain that Joaquina Kalukango sings for the ages. Nelly prays with grace and dignity: “Heaven Save Our Home.” Kalukango’s Nelly becomes the intercessor who has made the ultimate sacrifice. All those she loves in Paradise Square are in jeopardy. Her Eden hangs by a spider’s web. As we identify with her prayer, Kalukango’s Nelly stands in the gap for all who are threatened by war and oppression, or unseen forces that would trammel down the sanctity of life. In her portrayal, as she attempts to touch the heart of God, she enthralls our humanity. It is what live theater is all about.

A.J. Shively in Paradise Square (Kevin Berne)

In the transition to Act II, book writers take us to wealthy Uptown New York City. The set changes from the dark saloon, three level platforms, box cages and hard scrabble lines and angles to light, airy, plush furniture in a luxurious drawing room where the wealthy Mr. Tiggens, Amelia Tiggens and Uptown women are being entertained by Milton Moore. Moore presents new versions of songs he culturally appropriated from those he’s heard sung by immigrants and blacks in the Five Points. The scene brings heartbreak at the revelation that “Milton Moore” has been the cover for Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel).

(L to R): Ellis Quinn, Chloe Davis and ensemble in Paradise Square (Kevin Berne)

In a fascinating and ingenious twist in the arc of development, Foster, revitalized by his time in Paradise Square, exploits its greatness, democracy and vibrancy. He brags to Tiggens about his inspired time and unwittingly reveals what Nelly and the others plan. The scene is another dynamo that spills over into chaos when Foster returns to Paradise Square and confronts Nelly, who is arranging to financially save her saloon, Owen and Henry with the dance festival. Foster’s betrayal is a stinging blow. Though he apologizes and attempts to salve the wound by telling Nelly she encouraged his reformation, the danger he reigns down on them is unforgivable. Too late, she ejects him; but the damage has been done. All that is left is to hope that the dance festival brings in enough money to save her saloon and Owen and Henry.

(L to R): Joaquina Kalukango, Chilina Kennedy in Paradise Square (Julieta Cervantes)

The dance comes off in, another incredible scene with Jones’ amazing choreography front and center as Shively’s Owens and DuPont’s Henry compete, this time not so congenially. There is a winner. You’ll just have to see the show to find out. But the competition doesn’t have the desired effect. Subsequently, New York City undergoes its own class war as the immigrants go uptown in a rage to protest. The NYC Draft Riots, a well documented catastrophic debacle (50 buildings burned, 119 people dead) with destruction, death looting and burning lasts for three days until the US army quells the rioting. As the rioters set fire to Paradise Square, Kalukango’s Nelly confronts them and delivers a message (“Let it Burn”) that defies description in power and spiritual glory.

“Inside this little building is a rare and special lot; we somehow found each other and look what that has wrought; a place you are afraid of, a world you’ll never know; you can take it in a flash; you can burn it down to ash and then out of ash we’ll grow; if you think we’ll run away, you’ve got a lot to learn we are stronger than your fire, and I say let it burn.”

(L to R): John Dossett, Ben Michael, Josh Davis in Paradise Square (Kevin Berne)

Nelly realizes her Edenic dream continues in greater power without a building to house it. Thus, she gives up the one thing she worked incredibly hard to keep with the knowledge that Paradise Square and all it symbolizes to her is within her soul forever. It is for future generations to manifest and make her Edenic dream a reality.

How the creative team and Kalukango deliver this moment is miraculous. What the show kindles in those receptive to its messages and themes heals, strengthens and affirms. It is the glory of what our country can be in the resilience of the human spirit that uplifts freedom from the boot of financial, moral, ethical oppression and evil in all its forms.

Joaquina Kalukango in Paradise Square (Kevin Berne)

As I watched this production, I couldn’t help but align its “dangerous” democratic themes to events around the world and in our own country. Nelly’s message is the Ukrainians’s message to Vladamir Putin in his unjust war and attempt to destroy Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities with his Stalinist communist terror which cannot succeed. Similarly, I thought of the ultra extremist right wing politicos in the U.S., who would make women heel to their oppression by criminalizing abortion to the point of making it tantamount to homicide, while sanctifying, legitimizing rape. (The rapist becomes a father, bonded to the child and mother.)

(L to R): Chilina Kennedy, Joaquina Kalukango in Paradise Square (Kevin Berne)

The Supreme Court in attempting to overturn settled law, effects a second insurrection more damaging than that of the coup conspiracy by Donald Trump and QAnon Republicans on 6th January. When Kalukango’s Nelly sings her cries for safety and freedom, affirming both by the conclusion, she intercedes for all Americans who still believe with Lincoln in government of, by and for the people. The lrich minority are incapable of hearing such cries from the spirit. They only want to rule like despots.

The values and themes heightened in Paradise Square are truly Christian, American and democratic. The production is a vital happening during a time when political terrorist forces inside our country conspire with foreign adversaries to nullify our constitution and foundations of government based on self-evident truths in our Declaration of Independence; that all are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. There is no musical on Broadway today which best represents the American spirit and ideals.

If this does not sound like something you might like, then especially go see it. For tickets and times see their website:

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