By Larry Kirwan
Have you ever looked up at a Broadway stage and wondered just how a riveting performer got there? I can assure you it did not happen without hard work and fierce determination.
Many have special gifts, and they’re all talented, but the sheer effort that goes into getting cast in a top-of-the-line musical is extraordinary.
Cyndi Lauper once put it to me in her inimitable manner, “Anyone can give one hundred percent; it’s what do you got at 120 or 125 that counts?”
We’ve just completed two weeks of sold-out previews and Paradise Square opens at Berkeley Rep Thursday night, January 10. Some of you will remember the project began as Hard Times at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell, directed by Kira Simring back in 2012.
And now there’s a tremendous buzz about this musical that deals with the amalgamation of “Famine” Irish and African Americans in New York City’s Five Points in 1863.
The wonderful 32-member cast has brought “the most notorious slum in America” roaring back to gritty life on the huge stage of the beautiful Roda Theatre in downtown Berkeley, California.
So herewith – an insight into three young performers who hail from quintessentially Irish-American locations – Pearl River, NY; South Philadelphia, PA; and Dublin, Ohio.
I remember the day Bridget Riley auditioned for choreographer, Bill T. Jones. She was so photogenically Irish - long red hair, pale skin, and sparkling blue eyes. Then again she was born and bred in Pearl River.
Though she seemed almost waiflike, you could sense her determination. More importantly she possessed an odd timeless quality and I instinctively knew she would embody the spirit of the many young women who escaped Ireland’s Great Hunger, attended Five Points dance halls, cast aside convention, and married African-American men.
And can she dance! She began ballet at 5, switched to Deirdre Guilfoyle’s School of Irish Dance in West Nyack at 12, before adding Jazz & Tap at 14. But from the moment her mother took her to see Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, the six-year old girl knew where she was headed.
Ambitious and organized, Bridie has a way with people and was chosen as one of two dance captains for Paradise Square’s run at Berkeley Rep.
Sidney DuPont is a solid two percent Irish. He learned that through Ancestry.com. He attended CAPA (Creative Performing Arts High School) in South Philly, a safe haven where he could shape his craft. He began performing professionally at sixteen.
It was while marching/performing in the St. Patrick Day Parade that he was first introduced to Irish step dancing which he finds mesmerizing, and calls a fusion of tap and ballet.
He plays William Henry Lane, AKA Master Juba, a runaway slave hiding out in The Five Points who enters into a partnership with Owen Duignan, recently arrived from famine-stricken Ireland.
The friendship of the two young men is severely tested when Owen’s name is called in the Civil War Draft while Will Henry, as an African American, is prohibited from joining “Mr. Lincoln’s Army.”
Sidney is a triple threat, a dancer who can channel the legendary Master Juba, a singer not unlike Curtis Mayfield, and a skilled actor.
Anyone who’s been to their big annual festival knows just how Irish Dublin, Ohio is. You could say the same for A.J. Shively who plays Owen Duignan.
Although he’s an amazing mover it’s been an experience to watch him learn Irish step dancing from the ground up.
He did have Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman from Hammerstep for coaches. But six months later he’s matching steps with them nightly as he goes mano-a-mano against Master Juba in a dance battle for his life.
But that’s the signature of all these 32 performers. If there’s a skill you need to master in a hurry, then bring it on! A gig’s a gig and it’s all a step forward to a hallowed goal – originating a role on the Broadway stage.
Did I mention that A.J. has a voice to die for and that he’s fallen in love with Sean-Nós singing through merging his psyche nightly with Owen Duignan, the Gorta Mór refugee.
Three major talents from three bedrock Irish-American areas, and every night they give one hundred and twenty five percent in a theatrical séance that summonses up the spirits of the Irish and African Americans who for a brief moment rewrote American history.
"Paradise Square" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA Jan.10-Feb.17 Tickets and information www.berkeleyrep.org