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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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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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