“Who does she think she is?”
Based on the novel of the same name by Sherley Anne Williams and premiering off-Broadway in 2005, this is a show that has taken its time to reach our shores. And reflecting the hugely diverse nature of their back catalogue, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Dessa Rose adds another multi-layered account of a key moment in US history (see Ragtime) to their account, in the tale of the diverse but complementary journeys of a young black woman and a young white women in the Deep South.
It’s 1847 and Dessa is reaping the results of her wilful temperament as a love affair with a fellow slave has left her pregnant and behind bars. But try as she might to assert her independence, she has to learn to accept the kindness of others, chief among whom is Ruth, a former Charleston belle whose marriage has gone awry due to her husband’s gambling problem. Alone on the plantation, she welcomes runaway slaves and altogether, through their difficulties, they dare to dream of a brighter future.
The show suffers a little from being crowded, both literally and figuratively. With a 12 strong cast and a 4 piece band, space is very much at a premium on the intimate stage of the Trafalgar’s baby studio and though Andrew Keates’s direction is often ingeniously mounted (as in the whipping scene), some key moments are overcrowded or awkwardly placed – one longs for a larger stage to let the scenes breathe a little easier and for the drama to really hit home without having to crane one’s neck.
More significantly, Ahrens’ book tries to cram in far too much of the original source material – such fidelity is admirable, especially around such a sensitive subject, but it does mean that the piece is overloaded and overcomplicated as it uses and abuses flashbacks on top of its overarching narrative device of the two women looking back on their lives now they are grandmothers. All this fussiness felt like a distraction and meant I never truly connected emotionally with the show.
What does work is the intensity of the performances and the range that many of the cast are able to show in such intimate quarters. Cassidy Janson’s Ruth sparkles as she discovers a new lease of life and the promise of redemption in the deeply dishy arms of Edward Baruwa’s Nathan, and Sharon Benson radiates fierceness as Ruth’s kindly Mammie, compassionate and wise beyond all expectation. Cynthia Erivo’s Dessa is perfectly sung but overplays the truculence a little, allowing no warmth to temper her character even just a little.
Dean Austin’s musical direction is assured throughout, weaving together the sometimes hotchpotch nature of the score and one cannot fail to be stirred by some of the full chorus numbers and their optimistic spirit. I’d love for Dessa Rose to make a similar leap to Thérèse Raquin and land at the Park where it would have a little more room for there is undoubtedly something special here that deserves more room to shine.