I went to see the European premiere of the 2005 off-Broadway musical, Dessa Rose which opened at Trafalgar Studios last week. It’s based on the book by Sherley Anne Williams, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty.
This Arion Productions play, directed by Andrew Keates, is set in 1846 in the American South before the civil-war. It follows two young women on their journey to acceptance – Dessa Rose (Cynthia Erivo), a slave faced with a barrage of hardships due to the colour of her skin, and Ruth(Cassidy Janson), a young white mother, facing difficulties because of her gender.
The story is gripping – from the first moments it is full of action, music and song, as we are introduced to 15 year old Dessa Rose, as she moves from meeting her first love to becoming pregnant, to being imprisoned, and telling a large part of her story through flashbacks. The stage is set simply with floor blocks and chains hanging from the ceiling. The blocks were used to represent, a bed, a stage coach, a place to sit, even a slave’s punishment box, and fitted the small space well. Also, on stage and around the theatre were the musicians, with the keyboardist, and cellist on stage, and the two other musicians (wind and string instruments) tucked in the corners of the space.
Cynthia Erivo gives a wonderful performance as Dessa Rose, the tough and spirited slave. I also enjoyed the performances of Jon Robyns as Adam Nehemiah, sent to chronicle the story of Dessa Rose, and Alexander Evans who plays a few roles, (Robert Steele, Auctioneer, Mr Oscar, Sheriff Pine).
Song wise, the play begins when the company come out singing, and when they do all sing together in the opening, and throughout the play, it was way too loud. In the small space of Studio 2, the words became unclear, I couldn’t hear the words and wanted to mute the sound slightly. Other songs brought me out in goosebumps, and told the story with poignancy. I loved the voice of Edward Baruwu who plays Nathan, a runaway slave, who becomes a love interest of Ruth at her lonely and isolated plantation home. My favourite song was in the second act, with ‘In The Bend Of My Arm’ which was simply beautiful and evocative.
A lovely musical, some of the songs were too powerful for the space, some beautiful. It is an emotion packed story with lots happening, some of it maybe surplus to the story, but still enjoyable, with humour and laughter. The cast did a great job of bringing the story to life.
It’s on until the 30th August at Trafalgar Studios, London SW1. Running time 2 hours including interval. There are post-show discussions on Tuesday 12th August and Tuesday 19th August.
Tickets, 0844 871 7632.