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A CurtainUp London London Review
Dessa Rose

". . . . and when I come to name this baby, I will only name him free" — Dessa Rose
Dessa Rose
Cynthia Erivo as Dessa Rose and Cassidy Janson as Ruth (Photo: Scott Rylander)
They say, don't they, that the best of things come on small packages, and so at the thankfully air conditioned Trafalgar Studios Two comes Andrew Keates' production of the epic musical of slavery and the South, Dessa Rose. Keates has been blessed in this production with Cynthia Erivo as his star, who soon will be acknowledged by all of New York when she arrives there in The Chocolate Factory's minimally staged The Color Purple.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty brought us Ragtime and so we have high expectation of Dessa Rose. Based on Sherley Ann Williams' novel, Lynn Ahrens' book for the musical, like Ragtime, has some events we would like to think actually happened. Again like Ragtime, Dessa Rose has a blend of musical styles with spiritual, soul, banjo and ballad adding to the mix.

Although billed as being about the friendship of two women — one black and one white, one slave and one slave owner — for much of the show these women Dessa Rose (Cynthia Erivo) and Ruth Carson later Sutton (Cassidy Janson) are separated as Dessa Rose rejects any demonstration of friendship or help from Ruth. For a full synopsis and song list see Simon Saltzman's review in New York at the Lincoln Center here.

Garance Marneur's design concept is simplicity itself. Chains hang down from the lighting rig and wooden tables almost a tangram in shape, are moved around to create differing props. With some of the cast doubling, trebling or quadrupling, Andrew Keates has kept the story clear with costume and character changes.

This is undoubtedly Cynthia Erivo's show as she dominates vocally and emotionally, but it is the first time I have seen her really angry and snarly. She is only reprieved from hanging because she is carrying a child, a potential slave and therefore a valuable commodity. Tragedy hits her hard with the cruel murder of her lover Kaine (Fela Lufadeju) and the song "Twelve Children" which lists her as one of twelve who are all separated from her mother Rose, is heart breaking.

I liked too Cassidy Janson's Ruth who, abandoned by her husband on a deserted farm seems almost unaware that she is sheltering many escaped slaves. The image of that unfinished staircase stays with us. Edward Baruwa is strong as Nathan, the man who rescues Dessa Rose and becomes involved with Ruth in a relationship way before its time.

In the scheme, when Ruth is attacked by the white Mr Oscar (Alexander Evans) we see the bonds between the two women cement as Dessa Rose realises that Ruth's predicament is similar to hers. Jon Robyns convinces as Adam Nehemeyer, the journalist writing Dessa Rose's biography and who becomes obsessed by the sixteen year old.

The four piece live band, two of whom are tucked away in corners, give the show great verve and accompaniment to the cast of twelve. The songs, often with members of the cast playing the banjo or spoons on a bottle, are truly invigorating and impressive with good movement. Dessa Rose's showing as a boutique musical has all the pleasure of a vast staging and is all the more moving for its intimate setting and talented performances.

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Dessa Rose
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Andrew Keates

Starring: Cynthia Erivo, Cassidy Janson, Edward Baruwa, Sharon Benson, Miquel Brown, Jon Robyns
With: John Addison, Alexander Evans, Cameron Leigh, Fela Lufadeju, Gabriel Mokake, Abiona Omonua
Band: Dean Austin, Jessie-May Smart, Sophie Gledhill, Fraiser Patterson
Design Concept: Garance Marneur
Lighting: Neill Brinkworth
Choreographer: Sam Spencer Lane
Musical Director: Dean Austin
Costume Design: Philippa Batt
Sound Design: James Nicolson
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7632
Booking to 30th August 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th August 2014 performance at Trafalgar Studios Two Whitehall London SW1A 2DY (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
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