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A CurtainUp Review
Dessa Rose

We've paid for our children's' place in this world .
--- Dessa Rose
Rachel Yorke & La Chanze
Rachel Yorke & La Chanze
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It is fortuitous that Dessa Rose should open soon after I returned from "Pilgrimage Week" in Natchez, Mississippi, a semi-annual event during which more than two dozen antebellum plantation and town homes are opened to the public for tours. The houses' restored grandeur and the revered histories of their owners, as told by costumed docents, bring to vivid life the end of an era. An observer might consider the notable absence of slave quarters, and scant mention of their inhabitants. But memories do not get demolished or disintegrate, but live on in art, music, drama and literature. Perhaps this experience made me particularly open and receptive to the stirring new musical by collaborators Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) that is set in the pre-Civil War south.

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.

A Note about the Sound of the Music
Even if you're not quite as blown away by Dessa Rose's story as Simon Saltzman was, it is indeed a musical to which attention should be paid, if only because of the way the music is delivered. The singers are miked with tiny buttons but not with the devices that ratchet up the sound to the homogenized, hollow sound that's the rule in most Broadway theaters. Since the Mitzi Newhouse is a small space a show like this could conceivably be presented entirely "unplugged." As the sound of the music in Dessa Rose proves, however, modern sound technology needn't rob a voice of its natural beauty if it's subtly used, and the performers refrain from straining for maximum volume and the orchestra supports rather than competes with the voices.
-- Elyse Sommer

Dessa Rose
Book by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty, from novel by Sherley Williams
Directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele
Cast: Rebecca Eichenberger, Tina Fabrique, Michael Hayden, David Hess, LaChanze, Kecia Lewis, Norm Lewis, William Parry, Soara-Joye Ross, James Stovall, Rachel York, Eric Jordan Young.
Set Design: Loy Arcenas
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design: Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound Design: Scott Lehrer Orchestra: Conductor/keybord-David Holcenberg; associate conductor/keyboard-Deborah Abramson; guitar/banjo/mandolia-Greg Utzig; bass-David Phillips; percussion-Norbert Goldberg; reeds-Thomas Christensen; violin/mandolin/guitar-Genovia Cummins; cello-Anik Oulianine

Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Lincoln Center-Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street (Broadway/Amsterdam) 212/239-6200
2/17/05 to 5/29/05; opening 3/21/05
Tuesday - Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Sunday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 7pm
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on March 24th performance
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Prologue: We Are Descended/ Dessa Rose, Ruth and Company
  • Comin' Down the Quarters/ Kaine, Charleston Field Hands
  • Old Banjar/ Kaine, Dessa Rose
  • Something of My Own/ Dessa Rose
  • Ink/ Nehemiah
  • The Gold Band . Little Star/ Charleston Field Hands, Rose, Harker
  • Mr. and Mrs. Steele, Trader Wilson,Nehemiah, Nathan, Dessa Rose
  • Ladies/Ruth's Mother, Dorcas
  • Bertie's W a l t z/ Bertie. Ruth
  • At the Glen/Ruth
  • Capture the Girl/Nehemiah
  • Fly Away/Parishioners, Susannah, Dessa Rose, Nehemiah, Nathan, Linden Field Hands
  • Terrible/ House Slaves, Field Hands, Nehemiah. Nathan, Harker, Ruth
  • Twelve Children/Dessa Rose
Act Two
  • Noah's Dove/ Nathan,Ruth,Harker, Philip,Janet, Annabel, Ada
  • Fly Away (Reprise)/Janet, Annabel. Harker. Philip. Ada, Nathan
  • The Scheme/ Nathan. Harker
  • In the Bend of My Arm/.Kaine, Dessa Rose, Ruth, Nathan, Nehemiah
  • Belter It I Died/ Ruth, Dessa Rose, Company
  • Ten Petticoats/Ruth's Mother, Dorcas
  • Just Over the Line/Dessa Rose, Ruth. Nathan, Auclioneers, Janet, Ada, Annabel, Harker. Philip. Nehemiah
  • A Pleasure/Ruth, Mr. Oscar, Dessa Rose
  • White Milk and Red Blood/ Dorcas
  • Epilogue: We Are Descended/Dessa Rose, Ruth, Nehemiah, Company
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