Dessa Rose continues at the Trafalgar Studios, London until 30 August.
The award-winning musical theatre team of Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) have a prolific catalogue of successful shows that range from the simple charm of Seussical to the epic Ragtime.
Their latest offering, based on a novel by Sherley Anne Williams and set in the heart of America in the early 1900s, is the story of Dessa Rose, a 16-year-old pregnant slave who incites a rebellion to save herself and her unborn child. Around the same time, Ruth, a young Southern belle abandoned by her husband and living on their isolated farm, begins to take in runaway slaves. The musical is about what might have happened if these two real women had ever met. It is a strong anti-slavery tract within which two love stories are interwoven.
The intimacy of the small studio theatre bonds the audience with the actors right from the start. The cast drifts on stage to a tattoo beaten on hand drums, singing the powerful anthem of heritage and sisterhood, ‘We Are Descended’. Ruth and Dessa are first seen as 80-year-olds, each believing that their histories should be handed down to their children, and, as they speak, they revert to their younger selves, their stories unfolding in a series of flashbacks.
Whilst the main thrust of the show is dramatic and highly emotive, with attempted rape, childbirth and a ferocious whipping that is imaginatively staged, there are many moments of humour. Notably when Ruth’s mother, Cameron Leigh, delivers the rules a young lady of good breeding should follow in ‘Ladies’ and the necessity for ‘Ten Petticoats’ when travelling. In both songs she is ridiculed with some fine dumb show sarcasm from Sharon Benson as Ruth’s nurse, Dorcas. Later Benson gets to deliver a most powerful plea for racial harmony in ‘White Milk and Red Blood’.
There is additional light relief in a lively song and dance number choreographed by Sam Spencer Lane, ‘The Scheme’. Here the farm workers poke fun at their mistress, just as a friendship is beginning to build between Ruth and one of the runaways, Nathan, played by the excellent Edward Baruwa. Thanks to sensitive playing, the hesitant development of their relationship into love is full of tenderness and truly moving to watch. One feels almost an intruder to such intimacy.
Andrew Keates’ production is full of moments when the back of the throat catches and eyes develop a little dampness. One such falls to Cassidy Janson, as Ruth, sings of her loneliness, having been abandoned by her husband. Janson gives a superb performance throughout, which is equalled by Cynthia Erivo as Dessa. She too gets to wrench the heartstrings as she sings of the ‘Twelve Children’ born to her mother with her being the only one left, her siblings having being sold into slavery or died early. Eviro’s sublime performance captures every facet of Dessa’s complex character.
The excellent work of the ensemble gives full support to these two principals. Jon Robyns deserves singling out for his playing of Adam Nehemiah, an obsessive journalist who pursues Dessa. He captures beautifully the duality of the character whose Christian ethics are challenged by growing sexual desire.
The production is simply staged with just a couple of rostrums and some hanging chains with effective lighting reflecting differing moods and time changes.
Ahrens and Flaherty have written a fine score of mixed styles that gets sensitive playing from the four-piece band that never overpowers the actors. Their playing reflects the nature of the musical – a chamber piece. One that would lose its charm and power if performed on too big a stage. That said, whilst the small playing area benefits the audience through its intimacy, it does occasionally cramp the actors and hamper movement.