nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 23, 2005
The story at the heart of the new musical Dessa Rose is one that is very much worth telling. A sixteen-year-old slave, Dessa Rose, rebels against her master after he kills another slave who is her lover and the father of her unborn child. Dessa Rose and several other slaves are sold off the plantation, but while they're on the road they revolt once again, overcoming and even murdering some of their guards; she eventually winds up in prison, where she is sentenced to hang (her execution is held over until she gives birth—as a young man who comes to interview Dessa Rose in jail tells her, there's no way the powers that be will let a valuable commodity, i.e., her about-to-be-born child, slip through their fingers).
Dessa Rose manages to escape from prison, thanks to her own determination and the help of some of her friends, especially the kind but crafty Nathan. They take her to a remote plantation owned by Ruth Sutton, a 20-year-old white woman whose husband has more or less abandoned her; to make ends meet, she allows runaway slaves to work her land in exchange for a share of the profits plus her silence. Nathan devises a plan that will allow Ruth to make enough money to live comfortably and securely and will let the runaways make their way to the Northwest, where they will be able to live free without fear of being returned to their former masters (or worse). In the course of the execution of this plan, Ruth and Dessa Rose—both of them smart but wary women who have been conditioned since birth to mistrust people not of their own race—find common ground and learn to understand, and then love, one another.
The most moving moments in this musical, which is written by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), come whenever the two female protagonists get near each other: their initial missed connections are just as emotional and resonant as their eventual concordance. Also powerful is Dessa Rose's determination to name her daughter (who is born on the night that Dessa Rose arrives at Ruth's place) only after she's free—in the score's finest musical number, "Twelve Children," Dessa Rose sings to her baby about her heritage, eleven brothers and sisters who lived and died as slaves.
Unfortunately, such potent moments are relatively infrequent: the storytelling is generally clunky and awkward in Dessa Rose, most likely because there's so much story to tell. The ambience of this show is modest, with a dozen performers self-consciously acting out the tale in a manner reminiscent of Ahrens & Flaherty's own Once on this Island. But the plot is huge!—exposition takes up much of the first act, and narration intrudes throughout; far too often, events are told rather than shown to us. The effect is of hurrying through a long and complicated story when we want to be savoring rich emotions and ideas. Which is a shame—because the notions underlying this story are important and quite beautiful. I wanted Dessa Rose to work better than it does.
One of the clumsier of its devices is the use of both Ruth and Dessa Rose as narrators. The entire play is a flashback, or more accurately, two flashbacks, interwoven, narrated by 80-year-old versions of its two heroines. How I wished for their commentary to be dispensed with, allowing the story to flow on its own and tell itself.
Ahrens & Flaherty's score, responding to the expository demands of the piece, has more song fragments and recitative than most of their work, and fewer soaring melodies. It's nevertheless beautifully sung here, by as accomplished and committed a cast as any currently working on or off Broadway. La Chanze and Rachel York are the superb anchors as Dessa Rose and Ruth, respectively; offering worthy support are Norm Lewis as Nathan; Kecia Lewis as Ruth's "Mammy," Dorcas; Eric Jordan Young as Dessa Rose's lover, Kaine; and Soara-Joye Ross in several smaller roles. Michael Hayden plays Adam Nehemiah, the writer who interviews Dessa Rose in prison, and he does what he can with a thankless part that probably should have been cut. The rest of the ensemble—Tina Fabrique, Rebecca Eichenberger, David Hess, William Parry, and James Stovall—all do admirable work.
The show looks beautiful, too, with a lovely abstract set by Loy Arcenas that morphs easily into all of the many requisite locales, abetted by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer's evocative lighting and the audience's imagination. Toni-Leslie James's costumes are appropriate and, for Ruth, very pretty (most of the characters are runaway slaves—not much room for glamour there).
Dessa Rose stands alone among this season's high-profile musicals as the only one with something serious on its mind and in its heart; for that it has my admiration and respect. But in terms of execution, it cannot finally be counted as a success. Nevertheless, for those in search of something deeper and more thoughtful than the frivolity that's currently dominating our musical stages, Dessa Rose will be a relief and a reassurance.