Sunday 3 August 2014

Dessa Rose - Review

Trafalgar Studios, London


Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty.
Based upon the book by Sherley Anne Williams 
Directed by Andrew Keates

Cassidy Janson and Cynthia Erivo

The last twenty twenty years or so have seen the troubled racist history of America’s Deep South prove fertile ground for musical theatre with Jason Robert Brown’s Parade and Kander and Ebb’s Scottsboro Boys, both based around actual events, recently playing to London audiences. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Dessa Rose tackles the USA’s grim domestic history with a fictional tale of hope and inspiration set amongst the harshest of times in the Antebellum South when black enslavement was the norm. The story follows two young women, Dessa Rose a rebellious slave and Ruth a white farmer’s wife. Abandoned by her husband, Ruth, extraordinarily for her time, forms a compassionate bond with a group of escaped slaves, who establish a community on her farmland, under her benign acceptance.

In the oppressive confines of the Trafalgar’s Studio 2 andrew Keates has fashioned an impressive representation of these desperately cruel years. Chains hang from the roof, whilst the simplest of props suggest the Hot Box, or cramped miniscule solitary chamber to which slaves would be confined by their owners as punishment for misdemeanours. Clever movement and an inspired use of percussion, suggest both time and culture.

Keates is helped immeasurably by having some of London’s finest performing talent to work with. Cynthia Erivo whose Celie in 2013’s The Color Purple was one of the year’s theatrical highlights, plays Dessa Rose. Erivo’s presence on stage is at all times compelling and often electrifying. She acts with her voice, her body and intriguingly, with her eyes. At once the righteously vengeful slave, the grieving lover and a young mother, one wants to cheer and weep for her Dessa. Erivo closes the first act with Twelve Children a song about her character's siblings who had all met tragic fates and a number that is one of Ahrens and Flaherty’s most poignant. Erivo only understands “exceptional” as a work ethic and she remains one of the most exciting faces to have emerged in recent years.

Cassidy Janson’s Ruth is another display of excellence. Her laconic Southern Belle is a complex character, mastering rejection, desire and maternal care in a carefully crafted work. Elsewhere, Sharon Benson’s White Milk and Red Blood is a moment of spine-tingling tenderness, whilst Edward Baruwa’s Nathan, a slave ultimately to become Ruth’s lover, achieves a perfect mix of wry comedy with melodrama. Mopping up a number of roles, John Addison particularly convinces as a Sheriff and a slave trader, often recalling the gritty ugliness of the time that Quentin Tarantino captured in his movie Django Unchained. Fela Lufadeju also compels with gorgeous voice and movement as Dessa’s doomed lover Kaine.

Whilst many of the songs have pace and a distinct Southern influence on their melodies, as can be the case with Ahrens and Flaherty mediocrity occasionally creeps into their composition and their lyrics can seem blunt when compared to Brown or to Kander and Ebb. It is of course a tall order to tackle any such horrific scenario through the medium of song and dance and credit to Ahrens and Flaherty for such a powerful and imaginative work but nonetheless, their writers’ scalpel needs whetting.

Dessa Rose’s story is moving and under Dean Austin’s baton the music is free flowing. The acting is outstanding and Andrew Keates has again assembled one of the finest companies around. A compelling production, not to be missed.

Runs until 30th August 2014

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