Book and Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens
Music: Stephen Flaherty
Director: Andrew Keates
Reviewer: Paul Couch
In this game you get to see quite a lot of dross, especially in the West End, which these days seems to be a recycling facility for mass appeal juke-box musicals and star name vehicles – no artistic integrity required. Occasionally, however, you come across a little gem that deserves to be taken and polished lovingly for all the world to see. Such is the case with Andrew Keates’ Dessa Rose, currently playing at the Trafalgar Studios.
Dessa Rose is based on Sherley Anne Williams’ story of a fugitive slave in Alabama who finds an uneasy – and sometimes tempestuous – sanctuary with the wife of an errant white farm owner. It had limited runs off-Broadway and at various venues around the US but has never really been embraced as a major American musical, hardly surprising given the cultural skeletons in the closet represented by the American slave trade, which was still active until 150 years ago.
With themes of forcedservitude, institutional abuse, racism (on both sides) it would appear that humour might be a little in short supply but the laughs are there, dependent on our suspending our modern sensibilities to appreciate entirely, rather than endorse, the culture of the time. For all the bleakness of its narrative, Dessa Rose is a heart-warming and strangely uplifting piece. The heroes prevail and the villains get their comeuppance, all this wrapped in the glorious blanket of Stephen Flaherty’s gospel and Negro spiritual-inspired score.
As the eponymous protagonist, Cynthia Erivo is spectacular, bringing a blazing humanity to the rôle. Dessa’s story doesn’t give her much to smile about but, when the occasion arises, Erivo’s beaming grinlights up everything around her.
Against Erivo, Cassidy Janson is Ruth, the white woman who enters into a curious symbiosis with Dessa and her troupe of runaways. Janson is a revelation – serene and stately against the spitfire backdrop of Erivos’ character.
Andrew Keates directs his cast well and putting 12 dynamic people in a performance area no more than three metres by five metres is no easy feat. Add to that two additional non-actors, and Keates’ undertaking becomes even more arduous.
Indeed, if there’s one fault with Dessa Rose, it’s in the staging, which has Associate Musical Director Dean Austin and cellist Sophie Gledhill sitting right amid the action. Now while both are consummate musicians, their presence in modern dress and with music stands ablaze with light proves to be somewhat distracting. Trafalgar Studio 2 is one of the most endearing and charming venues in London, but its bijou nature can throw up some challenges. In this case, putting the musicians in costume might have helped.
Dessa Rose is a wonderful, inspirational oasis in West London’s cultural desert.
Photo: Scott Rylander