Review – Dessa Rose – Trafalgar Studios

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As regular readers know, I’m an easy mark for a new musical, and when a chance came up to review Dessa Rose – a recent American musical (2005) making its British debut at Trafalgar Studios– I was pretty psyched. Ahrens and Flaherty are both powerhouses on the New York scene (thanks substantially to Ragtime), but I was fascinated by the opportunity to see, here, a musical about our great American tragedy – slavery. I remembered how, when growing up, I had seen pictures of “ante-Bellum plantation houses” and thought that they came from an era when everything was more beautiful (not being too good with Latin). Listening to Ruth (Cassidy Janson – long time no Avenue Q) I was struck how every bit of gentility and luxury (“ten petticoats!”) was really only possible because of the fantastic profits that could be made using slave labor. (Well, cotton was also trading high as well, but if a family had been trying to run a farm with their own labor, well … there would have been a whole lot less gentility to it all.)

Anyway, it was notable that this show was coming over nine years later – to me, an indication that it wasn’t very successful the first time around – and also that it was coming over on the the heels of The Scottsboro Boys‘ sold out run at and transfer from The Young Vic. Maybe there’s something about being further away from the still hot feelings on this matter that makes the English audience capable of enjoying a show on its merits rather than judging it strictly on its political content … or maybe there was just a gap in the season. For me, watching 12 actors jammed into the tiny downstairs space at Trafalgar Studios, I couldn’t help but think this show was produced in hopes of a transfer. The set may have been tiny, but the costuming showed signs of a substantial budget – I think I was looking at actual Victorian hand-made lace on a few outfits – which spoke of solid backing. There was certainly no stinting on talent.

As a story, Dessa Rose is a bit of a fantasia on the American South, taking inspiration from the era but in no way beholden to strict cultural accuracy. The lead character, Dessa (Cynthia Erivo, sounding a bit New York and not very Old South), is born into slavery around 1830; we pick up her life in 1847, when she is living on a plantation with her mother Rose (Miquel Brown) and being courted by Kaine (Fela Lufadeju). When Massa Steele (Alexander Evans) kills Kaine in a moment of rage, Dessa Rose’s life is transformed, sending her ultimately to a jail where she awaits execution for murder.

Somewhat in parallel, we have the story of Ruth, a Charleston belle whose love marriage to a gambler leaves her running a plantation alone with a baby and not even her old nurse (Sharon Benson) for company. When a bunch of runaway slaves show up at her door, well, in my eyes novelist Sherley Anne Williams just decides to have a little bit of fun with the format. In my eyes, its all in service of good story telling, so rather than being disappointed that this play didn’t turn into a polemic on American race relations, I’m just grateful that the second half built into a fun “Ocean’s 11” buddy/caper tale that made for a solid night’s entertainment.

The whole experience is even more amazing in the context of being crammed into a tiny basement with a high quality cast belting out the tunes right in front of you, their skirts brushing your legs as they passed by. The intensity was amazing. And while the songs didn’t have the Tin Pan Alley singability of golden era Broadway, “White Milk and Red Blood” and “Twelve Children” were emotionally powerful songs. This show is only on for a few more weeks and is shockingly underpriced for the value delivered: I highly recommend seeing it in this intimate space while you can.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Saturday, August 9th, 2014. It continues through August 30th.)

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