views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Dessa Rose
Trafalgar Studios
5th August 2014

★★★★☆

Publicity image for Dessa Rose

Photography © Scott Rylander

Given how loudly the graffiti-inspired posters are screaming for the Martin Freeman/Jamie Lloyd production of Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios, you'd be quite forgiven for missing the fact that the first European production of 2005 Off-Broadway musical Dessa Rose is currently playing there too. Based on Sherley Anne Williams' 1986 novel of the same name, this adaptation is penned by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), the team behind such diverse creations as school-friendly Seussical the Musical, later hit Ragtime - of which this is a clear forerunner - and the most recent Rocky the Musical (although perhaps the least said about that one, the better).

The titular heroine, a rebellious slave in the mid-1800s Deep South, is portrayed by the superlative Cynthia Erivo. Barraged with hardships and cruelties she must fight tooth and nail to survive; jailed for murder and escaping while heavily pregnant, she crosses paths with an abandoned white society belle named Ruth (played with a delicate, sure touch by Cassidy Janson). The two women narrate the other's actions as old versions of themselves, signalled by a different physicality, and in their voices. The pair act as foils to each other, suffering all manner of injustices across the two-and-a-bit hour runtime and it is the intertwining of their stories which provides the strongest drama, particularly in the second act.

Andrew Keates directs within the confines of a tiny amount of space, assisted by some clever set decoration including multi-functional box platforms, and a tree of chains whose 'branches' wind across the low ceiling rigs. Other physical spaces, such as Dessa's jail cell, are drawn by lighting, with broader swathes of colour suggesting background mood and place. Dramatic moments are also bathed in colour, the violence of Dessa's whipping evoked in bright red hues.

This being the fourth show I've seen Erivo in, I'm clearly biased, but here she is flawless as always. Critics are falling over themselves to praise her and it's well-deserved; every time she opens her mouth the air somehow electrifies around her. The finale to Act 1, Twelve Children, is heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, amplified emotionally by the fact that Dessa sings it to her baby (a daughter, in case the opening number didn't foreshadow this enough).

Publicity image for Dessa Rose

Photography © Scott Rylander

But the rest of the cast, equally, more than pull their musical weight. The harmonies, especially of bookend number We Are Descended, are goose-pimplingly brilliant; for all the strengths of individual performers, this cast absolutely soars when it comes together.

Musically, the show applies a range of styles and genres to transport us to the antebellum South - everything from hymns to folk, gospel and blues. The tiny, 100-seat space of Studio 2 seemingly has musicians secreted everywhere; woodwind in the corner, strings on the stage and by the door. Associate musical director Dean Austin sits behind his keyboard in the in the middle of the stage, at the back, a literal central point through whom "the music of our memory flows". The final piece of the musical jigsaw is the actors themselves, playing percussion on a variety of instruments including drums, bottles and even their bodies, in a sort of proto-Stomp, which also evokes the staging of Irish hipster smash Once.

The story begins with Dessa Rose around the age of 15, in love with a boy named Kaine (Fela Lufadeju), who loves her equally. The pair have a clear chemistry, Lufadeju bringing an easy, louche charm to the boy, which makes the brutality of his murder all the more shocking. Dessa Rose reacts with horror and rage, and Erivo seems to burn as Dessa rages against the injustices which will set her life on a cruel and tragic path.

Cassidy Janson imbues her Ruth with a sense of heartbreak, of shifting loyalties, of naivety being gradually lost. The horror she projects as Dessa needles her for not knowing her Mammy's real name is palpable. She is by turns playful and kind, stubborn and ornery, with an inner steel that allows her to weather the plot's storms. Her resonant sense of dignity shows a grit which allies her most closely with Dessa Rose, forming the basis of their (initially grudging) mutual respect.

The rest of the company offer equally stellar work, particularly Edward Barwua as the charming rogue Nathan, Cameron Leigh as Ruth's suffocating, Southern Belle mother, and Sharon Benson as Dorcas, Ruth's 'Mammy'.

The main villain of the piece comes in the form of an Adam Nemehiah (Jon Robyns - usually known for his nice guy roles but here turning up the menace). Striding up to Dessa's jail cell with a rag to mask the smell from within, he reeks of smug self-satisfaction; his gradual descent from here runs contrary to the two leads' story arcs. Ironically, as he sinks further into obsession over catching the so-called "Devil Woman" he becomes less of an actual threat than in the first act, when he attempts to rape Dessa before she flees. By the time we reach the delicate sexuality of the mournful In the Bend of My Arm, he is broken and penniless, driven insane by mental and sexual obsession, his insistence upon Dessa's crimes ignored by the local Sheriff.

Yes, there are problems with the pacing; both acts are quite different in structure and tone - you'll probably prefer one and find the other weaker by comparison. The second act certainly offers more comic relief (especially in the number Ten Petticoats) but there is still much human cruelty with which to contend, not to mention the reappearance of Adam Nehemiah. The inconsistency between the acts is the real weakness of the book and is a shame in such an otherwise strong piece. The didacticism of the narration can be heavy-handed at times, too, such as when old Ruth opines "Slavery didn't do away with love, child. Not love, nor heroism." Was that an anvil falling?

It's impossible not to draw parallels with 2003 mega-super-smash Wicked; particularly evident in the leads' mismatched personalities clashing before they are able to work towards friendship. The tit-for-tat exchanges in second act number Just Over The Line mirror the former's What Is This Feeling, but whereas Wicked offers a slightly shallow sentimentality, the brutality within Dessa Rose means that the tears here feel more earned. Although the final reveal (of Dessa's daughter's name) should be predictable, it still kicks the audience squarely in the "feels", as the kids these days say.

There's a debate to be had about whether a white lyricist and musician are the right people to adapt this source material, but that aside, there's no denying the power and musical charm that this show offers in spades. The staging is tight, the cast on form and the music will haunt you for days. Never mind Hobbits playing hunchbacks: go and see this instead.

Dessa Rose ran from 29th July to 30th August 2014 at Trafalgar Studios.

Nearest tube station: Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo)



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