Posts Tagged ‘Cynthia Erivo’

Review – Dessa Rose – Trafalgar Studios

August 13, 2014

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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Review – Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Kneehigh Theatre at the Gielgud

April 3, 2011

Given that Kneehigh produced my favorite show of 2008, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, I was thrilled to hear that they were coming back to the West End with another movie adaptation, this time of the wonderful Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This movie, a marshmallow sky vision of life in France made in 1963 and starring the radiant Catherine Deneuve, is a cult classic that I adore for its color saturated settings as much as its sweet, all-sung dialogue and heartbreaking story of broken dreams. What would Kneehigh bring to this story? How would they change it? Was the movie strong enough to handle being remade? I was so excited I considered going up to Leicester to see it, but travel costs made it impossible; I would just wait until it opened in London.

However, prices as announced were, again, too high for me, Ms. Cheap Seats. I wanted to have a good experience, but £19.50 would only get me a side seat in the second balcony! £39.50 my absolute tops for a show, would get me the middle third of that same balcony, with front of second balcony going for £49.50! It was just, too, too expensive. LastMinute.com had only one deal (that I missed out on) and it wasn’t coming up on the TKTS half priced ticket booth – what was I going to do? I didn’t want to shell out £30 to sit in the last row of the entire theater way in the back. I didn’t know if it was the expenses of being on the West End, but my Umbrellas trip was being rained on. It was scheduled to run for about six months, though, so I figured after the newness wore off, something would happen.

Weeks passed. The show started previews. I couldn’t find any cheap seats. Finally, a first review appeared, a highly enthusiastic five wine glasses from the West End Whingers. Andrew even liked it so much he went again two nights later. I pencilled in a Friday two months later when I thought I just might be able to go. Then the old media reviews started coming in, and while they weren’t really negative, they lacked enthusiasm. I bided my time. Then … bad news … Twitter started telling a tale of half, even two-thirds empty houses. Suddenly, I realized, I had better go before it was too late. No one can keep running at a loss for month after month. I convinced my friend Jonathan to go for the £29.50 front row day seats and we finally made it on a Wednesday, the last week of March.

It was true – the Gielgud was deserted. We wandered in a theater that barely seemed to have a show happening at all. The lights dimmed a bit and we had a female cabaret star, with teased black hair, fishnets, and a skirts slit in the back and on the thigh, flirting with several sailors and explaining what kind of place Cherbourg was and teaching us some practical French. I don’t really know why Meow Meow was in the show or what it was Kneehigh thought she was required for, but there she was, full of personality and fun but, well, distracting. Finally the curtain went up and there was our tiny Cherbourg, cute little models on stage. Then a boy and a girl puppet came out and had a cute romantic moment … then it all flew away and the musical really got down to it.

It’s a show … about a boy. And about a girl. And about being young, and falling in love. And about parents who don’t support you when you’re in love, and about passion, and excitement, and how boring work can be, and about enthusiasm and joy and optimism – promising to spend your life with someone and meaning it, not having enough “history” to be jaded. Carly Bawden was as lovely and self-possesed and youthful as I could have hoped for in a Genevieve – utterly believable as a girl with stars in her eyes who is clear about what she wants in life. Andrew Durand had just the right feel for Guy, utterly in love with his girl, not worried about the future because it’s all so clear when you’re in love. And there is singing, and there are girls in beautiful gem-colored dresses (my favorite being Cynthia Erivo with her fantastic voice), and there are bikes being ridden around on stage and slides to go down and simple sets and a live band and so much life, life, life on stage. Life is exciting, and it’s meant to be sung, and Umbrellas embraces this.

And … do you know what happens? I can’t bear to tell you. Umbrellas isn’t tragic in a Romeo and Juliet kind of way; like Genevieve’s mom says (I think), people only die of love in the movies. This show is heartbreaking because, well, it’s about two people learning how love just really isn’t enough, when it comes right down to it. But far be it from me to explain to you how, or why, but I do promise that at the end you will feel your heart breaking with all of the disappointments ever felt by the teenager inside you.

I was left pondering just what it was that had kept this musical from attracting the audience it deserved. I think some people just don’t like this style of musical, even though the music itself was wholly superior to Love Story and Ordinary Days (though the lyrics were rather simple, keeping with the original as I recall). My guess is this show might have been better if the Meow Meow bit were cut entirely and it was just a straight ninety minutes without an interval – given that it already starts at 8PM, this would be a natural move and help the show be more focused. Nothing could really be done about the electricity missing from the performers; they acted as if they were expecting bad news any minute, and it came on Friday, as the shows early closing (in May) hit them at the end of the night.

But I think there is more to this, and maybe it’s just not about the cost of the tickets, but more about misjudging the appetite for this story. As Tim Watson said to me after we finished up the April third edition of the As Yet Unnamed London Theater Podcast, the previous shows Kneehigh did on the West End were well loved movies with a strong British tradition; Umbrellas really is a cult favorite and very French. It’s a pity it didn’t succeed here, but it’s still a good show. Catch it while you can.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. Umbrellas continues through May 21st.)