Cynthia Erivo and Cassidy Janson star in the European premiere of the musical drama Dessa Rose from multi award-winning music and lyric duo Ahrens & Flaherty.
The song writing duo behind the Broadway hit Ragtime: Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics), bring Dessa Rose, the best-selling novel by Sherley Anne Williams to life. This London run marks the European premiere, having first been performed off-Broadway in New York in 2005. In London, young English director Andrew Keates creates a well staged, beautifully lit and thoroughly engaging space which transports the antebellum South to the tiny Trafalgar Studio 2.
The story revolves around two women from disparate backgrounds who form an unlikely collaboration in their search for acceptance. The story of Dessa (Cynthia Erivo) a young black girl who is pregnant with a fellow slave and is also accused of murder, runs parallel to that of Ruth (Cassidy Janson), a young white mother who has been left in sole charge of a plantation following an unfulfilling marriage. When the two eventually meet, suspicion and hatred from years of indoctrination must be overcome.
The performance space is extremely small, made smaller still with blocks and chains creating an imposing yet movable landscape. Musicians, which include a cellist and a flutist, are located both on-stage in the middle of the action, as well as practically within the audience. African drums, chains and percussive inventions are slotted into what little space there is left and played by the cast to punctuate and add emphasis to spirituals. The result of this proximity to singers and musicians leads to a fully immersive experience where reverberations and acoustical flourishes resonate with each member of the small audience. Due to this there are a number of points where it was hard to hear dialogue, particularly from the character of Ruth who often speaks quietly. This however is about the only drawback of a performance in the round, where the advantages more outweigh any quibbles.
The opportunity to watch such a strong ensemble cast of twelve performing in an intimate space is one which should be seized while in this venue, particularly as the run is only scheduled until the end of August. The singing is spectacular throughout, with particular praise for the immensely talented Cynthia Erivo, who has been destined for great things since her shining role in the criminally short run of The Colour Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory in July last year. Her more recent role in the thankfully short run of I Can't Sing at provided a platform for her talents, but ultimately it is this role which marks a victorious return to form in terms of overall production. Vocally captivating, her range and timbre is used so effortlessly and with such colour that each line tells you all that is needed about the character being portrayed.
Mixing both lyrical and conversational styles through a soundtrack of gospel, hymns, blues and folk music; the musical director Dean Austin shapes Stephen Flaherty's score in ways which kept me hooked throughout. Emotional songs that tug at the heartstrings are layered with percussion, strings and woodwind. 'We Are Descended' gets things off to a rousing start, and 'Fly Away' sees Erivo truly soar. Each note allows for a well executed twist, and through these tones the characters on stage are allowed just a little space for humour and light-heartedness - the effect of which pierces the space like shards of light entering a darkened room through a window blind. Musically this is top notch, with my only criticism being the pacing of the narrative, which seems a little hurried at the end. But there is so much ground covered in these 2 hours and 10 minutes that when the lights finally went down, I was left with an awful lot to think about.
Dessa Rose runs at Trafalgar Studios 2 until Saturday 30th August 2014.
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