Thursday 21 August 2014

Theatre review: Dessa Rose

Based on a novel by a man named Lear Sherley Anne Williams, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's musical Dessa Rose gets its European premiere by bringing some big voices into the small space of Trafalgar Studio 2. Set in America's Deep South in 1846, it follows the fractious, unlikely friendship between two women, one black, one white. Dessa Rose (Cynthia Erivo) is a pregnant, teenage slave who, when the father of her child is killed, violently rebels. Condemned to be executed once the baby's born she has no intention of sticking around her cell that long. Ruth (Cassidy Janson) is the lonely wife of a plantation owner (John Addison) whose lengthy business trips culminated in him never returning. Raised by a slave who was the only person she ever loved, Ruth is sympathetic to escaped slaves, and doesn't ask many questions if a group of black people turns up on her land.

One of those hiding out on her plantation is Nathan (Edward Baruwa,) whom Ruth falls in love with. But along with him comes the escaped Dessa Rose, who's suffered more than most and isn't open to the idea that a white woman could be a friend.

Ahrens and Flaherty, who also wrote Ragtime, are prolific on and off Broadway, and certainly there's some strong numbers here. Andrew Keates's chamber version of the musical achieves a haunting quality from very early on, built on strong harmonies from the cast, which also includes Jon Robyns as a writer who becomes obsessed with Dessa Rose (making for 3 former West End Avenue Q leads reunited on this small stage1.)

Despite some pretty brutal moments, there's a bit of a rose-tinted view of slavery-era America in Williams' story, and the second act's story of everyone banding together to rip off slave auctions. The first act's structure, possibly echoing the novel's, bounces back and forward in time in a way that's confusing and muddles up its various framing devices. And the central relationship of two women who take a dislike to each other but gradually thaw into friendship is a familiar one, but Erivo and Janson make it appealing.

The only major flaw in Keates' production is a bizarre tendency to have everyone deliver big songs or speeches out to the aisle that leads to the exit door - I know blocking a musical for a thrust is tricky, but focusing everyone on one of the few areas where there isn't an audience is an eccentric way to ensure nobody gets preferential treatment (and means that from the left seating bank this is predominantly a story about the backs of people's heads, and a lot of lines get lost.) So there's a frustrating number of things, both in the play itself and the production, to distract from its strengths, but that's not to say they aren't there - the strength of the songs and the singers are what make this worth seeing.

Dessa Rose by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, based on the book by Sherley Anne Williams, is booking until the 30th of August at Trafalgar Studio 2.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

1I don't think any of them were ever on stage together though - Janson's run as Kate/Lucy was definitely long after Robyns had finished as Princeton/Rod, but she might have caught the tail end of Baruwa's stint as Gary.

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