The musical “Dessa Rose,” now up and running at New Rep Theatre, Watertown, seems like first cousin to the now classic “Ragtime” because both shows, created by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, have returned to the same potent theme – racism in America.
The musical “Dessa Rose,” now up and running at New Rep Theatre, Watertown, seems like first cousin to the now classic “Ragtime” because both shows, created by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, have returned to the same potent theme – racism in America. However, the story of the title character in “Dessa Rose” points the way for a hopeful resolution, unlike the tragic ending to the Coalhouse Walker saga in “Ragtime.” Another major difference between them is their setting.
“Ragtime” takes place in New York City, just after the turn of the 20th century, when huge changes brought about by the Civil War were continuing to shape the national culture along the divides between white and black, rich and poor. “Dessa Rose” delivers a picture of an earlier era and milieu – the 1840s, south of the Mason-Dixon line – where everyone was marked by the practices of slavery.
“Dessa Rose” makes no attempt to sugarcoat the evils of a system based on the treatment of blacks as personal property.
The central plot of “Dessa Rose” concerns the unlikely bonding of a pregnant 16-year-old runaway slave (Dessa Rose) and a white slave-owner’s wife, abandoned on a remote plantation somewhere in the South.
Thrown together through circumstances, the two women, and their babies, must not only depend on each other but find mutual love and respect. To Ahrens and Flaherty’s credit, there’s little sentimentality here – we’re not talking “Gone With The Wind” – but a learning process as the women recognize their sisterhood, despite the vastness of the color gap and societal expectations.
Director Rick Lombardo has correctly kept the production taut and unadorned, staged on a stripped down stage of raw lumber cut into walls and sliding platforms, designed with finesse by Peter Colao and lighted by Franklin Meissner, Jr. The movement devised by choreographer Kelli Edwards adds a period flavor, but she wisely avoids the “big number” syndrome that would jolt the reality of the drama. Todd C. Gordon has done a masterful job as musical director, incorporating the body-slapping sounds and drumming of the slaves into the score.
Lombardo’s uniformly fine cast is blessed by a lovely blend of voices, led by the young actress, Uzo Aduba, as Dessa Rose, and Leigh Barrett who continues to grow splendidly in every new role. The women start out as 80-year-olds, looking back on the experience that shaped their lives and outlook, then revert to their younger selves: Aduba, whipped and imprisoned under inhuman conditions; Barrett as a 19-year-old bride with expectations of happiness ever after.
The tour-de-force role of Dessa Rose calls on a range of physicality from Aduba, as well as theatrical transformations from innocent girl to fearsome devil to world-weary human being, desperate for respite. Aduba masters all this and more, in a performance that sent shivers down the spine of this viewer, particularly when she sang-chanted “Twelve Children, ” relating the significance of naming slave babies to give them identities. Barrett as Ruth is buttoned up and laced into costumes designed by Frances Nelson McSherry that serve as visible metaphors for the restrictions around a woman of her class. But Barrett as Ruth matures during her travails, which expand her viewpoint outward to the people around her.
The most problematic character is Adam Nehemiah, the white journalist, allowed to interview Dessa Rose in her cell. He’s portrayed as a troubled psychopath by Todd Alan Johnson, but he’s sabotaged by conflicting messages from the script. Edward M. Barker makes Nathan, the runaway slave with a scheme to beat the system, into an appealing rogue. Peter A. Carey presents detailed characterizations of several of the smaller roles.
“Dessa Rose” is more of a chamber work than the large-scale, big hit “Ragtime,” and Flaherty’s score holds echoes from that show, however, there’s grand passion here.
The Patriot Ledger