Front, from left, Sidney Dupont and A.J. Shively dance in Berkeley Rep’s engaging premiere musical “Paradise Square”; in the back are, from left, Jacob Fishel, Daren A. Herbert and Madeline Trumble. (Courtesy Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Berkeley Rep’s new musical ‘Paradise Square’ involving and overwhelming

“Paradise Square,” the world-premiere musical at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is so emotionally involving, so beautifully designed, directed (by Moisés Kaufman) and performed, that to suggest it’s too much of a good thing feels like denial of the extent to which it’s effective on so many levels.

But with dozens of performers plus its musical ensemble, its multiple relationships, crowd scenes, Civil War setting, themes that resonate so powerfully today, the repurposed songs of Stephen Foster that comprise the score, Bill T. Jones’ stunning choreography — it’s overwhelming.

That, and the dialogue, by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan, is too often surprisingly cliché and sentimental.

In Five Points, a slum in lower Manhattan in which, for a period of time, African-Americans and Irish immigrants lived together harmoniously, sometimes intermarrying, the central character, Nelly (a ferocious Christina Sajous), runs a tavern called Paradise Square.

Into this tavern wanders one of the play’s nonfictional characters, a hapless Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel), hired to play piano.

Among the bar’s denizens are Nelly’s close friend, Annie (Madeline Trumble), who’s white, and Annie’s African-American husband, a reverend (Daren A. Herbert), both active in the Underground Railroad. When an escaped slave, William Henry Lane (Sidney Dupont) arrives, the couple hasten to provide refuge, but his crime is worse than they realize.

Meanwhile, penniless Irish immigrant Owen (A.J. Shively) turns up; he and William Henry form a dancing duo to attract desperately needed patrons to Paradise Square.

When President Lincoln announces the wartime draft — from which, for $300, a man can opt out — their act turns into a vicious competition for prize money that mirrors the upcoming (real-life) race riots, during which white workers turned against black workers.

In this classist, racist society, blacks are barred from fighting in the war, and only the rich have a way out.

That alone is more than enough for one drama.

But there’s more, including an underdeveloped Foster himself and attitudes about his slavery-romanticizing songs; the wonderful score (Foster’s works, cleverly rearranged and subverted, with lyrics by Nathan Tyson, music by Jason Howland and Kirwan); the choreography, which is the best part of the show, a mix of African styles, Irish step-dancing, tap and more; upstage projections; a wonderful, multi-tiered set (by Allen Moyer).

Nevertheless, with a sharpened script, and a drastic paring-down of characters and events, this musical ought to soar.

Paradise Square: A New Musical
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; extended through Feb. 24
Tickets: $28 to $115
Contact: (510) 647–2949, www.berkeleyrep.orgTheater

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