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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 13, 2005

issue of U.S. 1

Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: ‘Dessa Rose’

It is fortuitous that "Dessa Rose" should open soon after I returned

from "Pilgrimage Week" in Natchez, Mississippi, a semi-annual event

during which more than two dozen antebellum plantation and town homes

are opened to the public for tours. Their restored grandeur and the

revered histories of their owners, as told by costumed docents, bring

that era into vivid Technicolor. An observer might consider the

notable absence of slave quarters, and scant mention of their

inhabitants. Memories, however, do not get demolished or disintegrate,

but live on in art, music, drama, and literature. Perhaps my recent

trip made me particularly open and receptive to the stirring new

musical by collaborators Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, set in the

pre-Civil War south, at Lincoln Center Theater.

Ahrens and Flaherty certainly have a commendable determination to

create substantial musical theater. Beginning with "Lucky Stiff" and

continuing with "Once on This Island," "Seussical," and "Ragtime,"

their musicals, however, have been more respectfully than ecstatically

received. Their uncommon ability to accommodate traditional musical

theater values with their distinctly contemporary flair has been

nurtured by Lincoln Center Theater, which previously produced the

team’s "My Favorite Year" and "A Man of No Importance." Ahrens

(lyrics) and Flaherty (music) have not been daunted in their

continuing concerted efforts with "Dessa Rose," their best musical

since "Ragtime."

And kudos again to Lincoln Center Theater for supporting this

seriously intended and emotionally driven show based on the novel by

Sherley Anne Williams. The musical tells a fictionalized story about

two real women, a black runaway slave and an abandoned white woman.

Not being familiar with the source novel that Williams submits as an

antidote to "The Confessions of Nat Turne," – "that travestied the

as-told-to-memoir of slave revolt" – I can only report on how deeply I

was moved by what I saw. Luckily I was informed by an acquaintance at

intermission of how closely Ahrens’ book follows the source.

Nevertheless, I was impressed from the start by the narrative drive

that is used to tell about the mostly guarded yet empowering

relationship that develops between these two women living in the

antebellum Deep South around 1829-’30.

The creators have devised their musical as an oral history being

passed down from Dessa Rose and Ruth to their grandchildren, a device

that illuminates a very complex yet meticulously interwoven drama. It

begins with Dessa Rose and Ruth in their old age looking back on their

lives in a song, "We are Descended," which gradually builds into an

uplifting gospel-styled choral anthem. This song bookends their

personal and conjoined journey, one that is propelled by an impressive

musical score.

LaChanze plays the pregnant slave, Dessa Rose, who, although condemned

to death for leading an uprising, is reprieved from hanging until her

baby is born. Her captives have chosen not to destroy "perfectly good

property." In jail, she is interviewed by Adam Nehemiah, who is

gathering material for his book on slave rebellions. Played by Michael

Hayden, Nehemiah not only becomes obsessed with Dessa’s story but with

the young woman herself.

Rachel York plays Ruth Sutton, a well-bred woman who, left abandoned

by her ne’er-do-well slave-owner husband on a remote farm in northern

Alabama, has almost unwittingly begun to provide sanctuary to fleeing

slaves. It is here that Dessa Rose and her companions find shelter

despite their initial distrust in Ruth and where they become part of a

bold scheme to win the slaves’ freedom. This serves to unite the two

women. The musical affords a tour-de-force for both LaChanze and York,

who switch back and forth from their dotage to their youth, as the

story alternates exposition and flashbacks, with surprising clarity.

LaChanze offers an illuminating portrait of a feisty woman whose inner

strength is first observed in the impassioned aria "Something of My

Own" and later in the moving testament to her family, "Twelve

Children." LaChanze, who is no stranger to this team’s vocal demands

("Island" and "Ragtime"), is a constant source of dramatic fireworks.

Recalled as a delight in "Sly Fox," "The Scarlet Pimpernel," and

"Victor/Victoria," York reveals Ruth as a deeply hurt but valiant

survivor who risks everything to find love and discover her own worth.

The young Ruth disarms us in a charming scene with her mother and

house servant that features a satiric song, "Ladies," which pokes fun

at the superficiality of southern debutantes. York is also capable of

moving us to heartbreak in her heartrending aria expressing her

desolation and loneliness, "At the Glen."

Hayden is excellent as the vindictive reporter whose intellectual

curiosity suddenly switches to lust. When violently spurned by Dessa

Rose, he begins a pursuit that rivals Inspector Javert after Jean

Valjean, one that finds him forsaking his fiancee and eventually

turning him mad, when his attempt to expose Dessa Rose at a slave

auction is thwarted. Norm Lewis offers a strong virile performance as

Nathan, the slave whose interest in Ruth is second only to his

interest in the ragtime-propelled "The Scheme," a lilting duet for him

and his friend Harker (James Stovall). Before his tragic demise early

in the show, Eric Jordan Young, as Kaine, Dessa Rose’s boyfriend,

supplies a jaunty diversion with "Old Banjar." Other impressive

performances include Rebecca Eichenberger and Natasha Yvette Williams

(who replaced Tina Fabrique in the performance I saw) in multiple


While Graciela Daniele’s direction and choreography appears at first

somewhat stiff and reverential, it essentially moves with visual grace

through its pageant-like progression. The most exciting of the dances

involves the slaves, with their percussive rhythmics and evocative

stomping. Loy Arcenas’s setting of wooden planks and stockade-like

walls and a minimum of props is effective enough. Toni-Leslie James’

costumes essentially reflect the mode of the era, all of which is

expertly reflected through the artistry of lighting designers Jules

Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

More intimately conceived but no less inventive in its voluptuous

musical themes than was "Ragtime," "Dessa Rose" is a far cry from the

simplistic juke box musicals reigning (or is it raining?) on Broadway

this season. That "Dessa Rose" may be considered somber and weighty in

light of current trends, it sights are lofty and gratifying, and it

should be seen and appreciated by anyone with an interest in fine

all-American musical theater. ***

– Simon Saltzman

Dessa Rose, Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th

Street. $75. 212-239-6200.

Top Of Page
On Broadway

The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you

should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254

West 54.

All Shook Up, Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway.

After the Night and the Music, Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47th.

Previews begin April 28.

All Shook Up, Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway.

Avenue Q, **** Golden Theater, 252 West 45.

Beauty and the Beast, *** Lunt-Fontanne Theater, Broadway & 46.

Billy Crystal: 700 Sundays, **** Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44.

Extended through May 21.

Brooklyn the Musical, * Plymouth Theater, 236 West 45.

Chicago, *** Ambassador Theater, 219 West 49.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hilton Theater, 213 West 42.

Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance, *** Music Box Theater. Extended

through June 4.

Democracy, ** Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Imperial Theater, 249 West 45.

Doubt, Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48.

Fiddler on the Roof, ** Minskoff Theater, 200 West 45.

Glengarry Glen Ross, Royale Theatre, 242 West 45.

Good Vibrations, Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 West 49.

Hairspray, *** Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52.

Jackie Mason Freshly Squeezed, Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44.

Julius Caesar, Belasco Theater, 111 West 44.

La Cage Aux Folles, **** Marquis Theater, Broadway and West 46.

Lennon, Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44. Previews begin July 7.

Little Women, Virginia Theater, 245 West 52.

Mamma Mia!, *** Winter Garden Theater, 1634 Broadway.

Movin’ Out, *** Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46.

On Golden Pond, Cort Theatre, 138 West 48.

Rent, **** Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41.

Spamalot, Shubert Theater, 225 West 44.

Steel Magnolias, Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45.

Sweet Charity, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Circle in the Square, 50th

between Broadway and 8th.

The Glass Menagerie, Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47.

The Light in the Piazza, Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65.

The Lion King, **** New Amsterdam Theater, Broadway and 42.

The Phantom of the Opera, *** Majestic Theater, 247 West 44.

The Pillowman, Booth Theater, 222 West 45.

The Producers, *** St. James Theater, 246 West 44.

Twelve Angry Men, ** American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42. Extended

to May 15.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Longacre Theater, 220 West 48.

Wicked *** Gershwin Theater, 222 West 51.

Top Of Page

A Picasso, New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th.

Altar Boyz, Dodger Stages, 340 West 50.

Beast on the Moon, Century Center, 111 East 15th.

Blue Man Group, *** Astor Place, 434 Lafayette, 212-254-4370.

China Doll, West End Theater, 263 West 86th.

Cookin’, ** Minetta Lane, 18 Minetta Lane, 212-420-8000.

Dessa Rose, *** Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65.

Endgame, Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22.

Eyewitness Blues, New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4.

Forbidden Broadway Special Victims Unit, **** Douglas Fairbanks

Theater, 432 West 42.

God Hates the Irish, Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Place.

Going to St. Ives, 59E59 Theater, 59 East 59th.

Hiding Behind Comets, 212 West 29. Extended to April 17.

Hot ‘n’ Throbbing, Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42.

Hurlyburly, 37 Arts, 450 West 37.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, ** Westside Theater, 407 West


Jewtopia, * Westside Theater, 407 West 43rd.

McReele, Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46.

Menopause, the Musical, Playhouse 91, 316 East 91, 212-831-2000.

Modern Orthodox, Dodger Stages, 340 West 50.

Moonlight and Magnolias, Manhattan Theater Club, 131 West 55.

Nine Parts of Desire, MET, 55 Mercer.

On Second Avenue, JCC, 344 Amsterdam.

Orgasms, Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam.

Orson’s Shadow, Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7.

Penis Monologues: Men Speak, Second Stage Theater, 396 West 43.

Picon Pie, *** Lamb’s Theater, 130 West 44.

Romance, Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20.

Shockheaded Peter, Little Shubert Theater, 422 West 42.

Slava’s Snowshow, ** Union Square Theater, 100 East 17.

Souls of Npales, The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42.

Stomp, *** Orpheum Theater, Second Avenue at 8.

The Lonely Way, Mint Theater, 311 West 43.

The Musical of Musicals, *** Dodger Stages, 350 West 50.

This is How it Goes, Public Theater, 425 Lafayette.

Thom Pain, DR2 Theater, 103 East 15.

Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding ** St. Luke’s Church, 308 West 46.

We’re Still Hot, St. Luke’s Theater, 308 West 46.

What of the Night, Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher.

Woman Before a Glass, Promenade Theater, Broadway and 76.

– Simon Saltzman

Top Of Page
Ticket Numbers

Broadway and Off-Broadway reservations can be made through Tele-Charge

at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200; Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; and

Ticketmaster, 212-307-4100.

For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music, and

dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing arts

hotline operated by the Theater Development Fund. The TKTS same-day,

half-price ticket booth at Times Square (Broadway & 47) is open daily,

3 to 8 p.m. for evening performances; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for Wednesday

and Saturday matinees; and 11 a.m. to closing for Sunday matinees.

Cash or Travelers Checks only; no credit cards. Visit TKTS at:


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