note: entire contents copyright 2008 by Beverly Creasey
The stage at New Rep crackles with energy for the New England premiere of DESSA ROSE, the latest musical from the creators of RAGTIME (through May 18th). Director Rick Lombardo gets powerful performances from a stellar cast in this terrifying story of one woman’s escape from slavery and the remarkable friendships which sustain her along the way.
Uzo Aduba gives a fierce, larger than life performance as the defiant slave who wills herself to stand up after a savage beating and by doing so becomes a catalyst for rebellion. Leigh Barrett triumphs as the white woman who finds her own strength (of will and character) when she and her baby are abandoned by her ne’er do well husband.
The two stories intertwine with a third, that of a villain rather like Javert in Les Miserables, who will pursue Dessa Rose to the ends of the earth. Todd Alan Johnson paints an intense portrait of a man obsessed….but it is the secondary characters who give the musical its vitality. Joshua W. Heggie electrifies the stage, whether singing or stomping out a righteous rhythm for the (musical-ized version of the traditional) “I’ll Fly Away.” Dee Crawford’s soaring voice and confident presence infuse the characters she plays with depth and substance (especially her heroic stand at play’s end as the trusted slave).
Edward M. Barker gives a sly performance as the runaway slave with the scheme (right out of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY) to outwit slave owners and turn a profit with which to buy his own freedom. De’Lon Grant radiates charisma as Dessa Rose’s doomed sweetheart and A’Lisa D. Miles provides some welcome comedy mocking the foolish Southern belles. Michael Kreutz and Peter Carey portray the many bad guys with creepy gusto.
Lovely songs like Barrett’s gorgeous lament, “Lonesome in the Glen” and the lover’s “In the Bend of My Arm” give the musical its sweet resonance but the opening number (“We are Descended”) would have you believe that both black and white stories have equal importance when it’s obvious that Dessa Rose’s is the stronger storyline. In fact, the convergence of the two doesn’t happen until the end of Act I.
Some of the songs lack luster but music director Todd Gordon’s singers make them sparkle. Despite one of the oddest endings I’ve ever encountered (where one woman gets a man and the other gets a fish!), DESSA ROSE has plenty of chills, nifty plot surprises and compelling characters.