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A CurtainUp Review
Ahrens and Flaherty certainly have a commendable determination to create substantial musical theater. However, beginning with Lucky Stiff, and continuing with Once on this Island, Seussical and Ragtime, their work has been more respectfully than ecstatically received. Their uncommon ability to accommodate traditional musical theater values with their distinctly contemporary flair has been nurtured by Lincoln Center Theater. They produced My Favorite Year and A Man of No Importance and have now mounted Dessa Rose, the team[s best musical since Ragtime. This seriously intended and emotionally driven musical is based on the novel of the same name by Sherley Anne Williams, which tells a fictionalized story is told about two real women, a black runaway slave and an abandoned white woman. Not being familiar with the source novel that Williams wrote as an antidote to The Confessions of Nat Turner which " travestied the as-told-to-memoir of slave revolt," I can only report on how deeply I was moved by what I saw. Luckily I was informed by an acquaintance at intermission of how closely Ahrens book follows the source. I was impressed from the start by the narrative drive that is used to tell about the mostly guarded yet empowering relationship that develops between these two women living in the antebellum Deep South around 1829-30.
The creators have devised their musical as an oral history being passed down from Dessa Rose and Ruth to their grandchildren, a device that illuminates a very complex yet meticulously interwoven drama. It begins with Dessa Rose and Ruth at 80 and 84 looking back on their lives in a song "We are Descended" which gradually builds into an uplifting gospel-styled choral anthem. This song bookends their personal and conjoined journey, one that is propelled an impressive score.
LaChanze plays the pregnant slave Dessa Rose who, although condemned to death for leading an uprising, is reprieved from hanging until her baby is born because her captors have chosen not to destroy ""perfectly good property." In jail, she is interviewed by Adam Nehemiah, who is gathering material for his book on slave rebellions. Played by Michael Hayden, Nehemiah not only becomes obsessed with Dessa's story but with the sixteen-year-old herself.
Rachel York plays Ruth Sutton, a well-bred woman who, abandoned by her ne'er-do-well slave-owner husband on a remote farm in northern Alabama, has almost unwittingly begun to provide sanctuary for fleeing slaves. It is here that Dessa Rose and her companions find shelter despite their initial distrust of Ruth. A bold scheme to win the slaves' freedom serves to unite the two women.
The musical affords a tour-de-force opportunity for both LaChanze and York. Both switch back and forth from their dotage to their youth with surprising clarity, as the story alternates between exposition and flashbacks . LaChanze offers an illuminating portrait of a feisty woman whose inner strength is first observed in the impassioned aria "Something of my Own" and later in the moving testament to her family "Twelve Children." LaChanze, who is no stranger to the vocal demands of Ahrens and Flaherty's scores, having appeared in Island and Ragtime, is a constant source of dramatic fireworks.
Recalled as, York ( a delight in Sly Fox, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Victor/Victoria) reveals Ruth as a deeply hurt but valiant survivor who risks everything to find love and discover her own worth. The young Ruth disarms us in a charming scene with her mother and house servant that features the satiric "Ladies" that pokes fun at the superficiality of southern debutantes. York is also capable of moving us to heartbreak in her impassioned aria expressing her desolation and loneliness in "At the Glen."
Michael Hayden is excellent as the vindictive reporter whose intellectual curiosity suddenly switches to lust. When violently spurned by Dessa Rose, he begins a pursuit that rivals Inspector Javert after Jean Valjean, one that finds him forsaking his fiancée and eventually turning him into a madman when his attempt to expose Dessa Rose at a slave auction is thwarted. Norm Lewis offers a strong virile performance as Nathan, the slave whose interest in Ruth is second only to his interest in the ragtime propelled "The Scheme", a lilting duet for him and his friend Harker (James Stovall). Before his tragic demise early in the show, Eric Jordan Young, as Kaine, Dessa Rose's boyfriend, supplies a jaunty diversion with "Old Banjar." Other impressive performances include Rebecca Eichenberger and Natasha Yvette Williams (who replaced Tina Fabrique in the performance I saw) in multiple roles.
While Graciela Daniele's direction and choreography appears at first somewhat stiff and reverential, it essentially moves with visual grace through its pageant-like progression. The most exciting of the dances involves the slaves, their percussive rhythmics and evocative stomping. Loy Arcenas' setting of wooden planks and stockade-like walls and a minimum of props. Toni-Leslie James provides appopriate to the period costumes. Everything is expertly reflected through the artistry of lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
More intimately conceived but no less inventive in its voluptuous musical themes than was Ragtime, Dessa Rose is a far cry from the simplistic juke box musicals reigning (or is it raining?) on Broadway this season. In light of the current trend dominating musical theater, Dessa Rose may be considered somber and weighty. But it should be seen and appreciated by anyone with an interest in more lofty and gratifying aims.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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