The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

“Paradise Square” on Broadway and “Suffs” off-Broadway musicalize history without locating its heart

Phillipa Soo, foreground, with Shaina Taub, right in the Public Theater's “Suffs.” (Joan Marcus/The Public Theater)
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NEW YORK — To a pair of big new musicals that mine the American past, history has not been kind.

“Paradise Square,” set amid the New York City draft riots of 1863, and “Suffs,” the story of the women’s suffrage movement that led to the passage of the 19th Amendment, pan for theater gold in exposition-heavy musicalizing. Panoramic portraits such as these require the creative vision to narrow the emotional focus compellingly, so that in the rapid unfolding of turbulent events, the people populating them don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Neither musical achieves this crucial goal. “Paradise Square,” which had its official opening Sunday night at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, places a premium on fast-stepping dance rather than 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 because of covid cases in the cast), devotes more initiative to showing off its research than developing its characters. Both shows, in other words, go wide rather than deep.

Sweeping depictions of historical events must be calibrated carefully to a human scale, with an emphasis on psychological clarity as well as humor. Without these elements, you’re back in eighth-grade social studies. Lin-Manuel Miranda did his songwriting peers a favor, showing them how to add spectacular flavor to the story of the American Revolution. And although not every production can or should be “Hamilton,” Miranda’s instinct for the balance between erudition and entertainment is a template well worth taking purposefully to heart.

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

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

As it is, though, “Paradise Square” has too many threads to unspool. To name a few, the class and racial hostilities of the time; the resentment of the Union’s Civil War conscription policy; the plight of enslaved people escaping to Canada; the corruption of the White political establishment; the ever-present specters of poverty and civil unrest. If all this isn’t enough, the 19th-century American composer Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel) shows up at Nelly’s doorstep, under an assumed name, to eventually play one of his songs, “Angelina Baker” — which also is the name of the onetime enslaved woman, played by Gabrielle McClinton, who is on the run after being implicated in the killing of a brutal White enslaver.

Any wonder “Paradise Square” has you itching to make your own faster exit? With its huge cast, finely costumed by Toni-Leslie James, and elaborate dance sequences, set to Jason Howland’s vigorously generic music, the show would doubtless look good at the Tony Awards. Any excerpt, though, will perforce be more satisfying than the sum of this musical’s busy parts.

“Suffs” is the brainchild of Shaina Taub, a buoyant talent who has delighted audiences with her dynamic stagings of Shakespeare in Central Park. She stars in the musical as Alice Paul, the indefatigable suffragist organizer who could have been the inspiration for the coinage of “Nevertheless, she persisted." With Leigh Silverman directing and Raja Feather Kelly supplying choreography, Taub has surrounded herself with wonderful Broadway musical-theater luminaries — Phillipa Soo, Nikki M. James, Jenn Colella among them — for an account of the successful campaign to win women’s right to vote.

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

Taub’s notion in casting 20 women and non-binary actors in all roles is a smart one: This for once, really is herstory. (The musical’s major target for disdain is the obstinate, sexist President Woodrow Wilson, well played as a snide soft-shoe hoofer by Grace McLean.) Taub performs an admirable service, too, in documenting the friction in the ranks, epitomized by the dismissive treatment by Paul and other White suffragists of Black leaders of the movement such as the journalist Ida B. Wells.

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

“Suffs” could use more of this kind of moment, when we feel we’re drawing closer to the characters and not merely flipping through a textbook. Here and in other aspects of Taub’s burgeoning career, the composer-lyricist reveals she has much to say. The disappointment on this evening is in trying to say it all.

Paradise Square, 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 A.J. Shively, Chilina Kennedy, Sidney DuPont, Nathaniel Stampley, Kevin Dennis, John Dossett. About 2 hours 50 minutes. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York.

Suffs, book, music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Choreography, Raja Feather Kelly; music direction, Andrea Grody; set, Mimi Lien; 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.