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Posts Tagged ‘Sherley Anne Williams’

You have to hand it to Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty; each of their musicals takes you somewhere completely different. This one sees us in the Deep South in the mid-19th century, before the abolition of slavery. Based on Sherley Anne Williams novel, the central characters of Dessa Rose, a young slave, and Ruth, a Southern belle, tell their story in flashback from a prologue and epilogue in the 1920’s, by which time things have of course changed. It’s a dramatically rich story with an excellent score and, in this production, a stunning ensemble.

Dessa Rose is a young slave on the Steele plantation and Ruth, the same age, is the daughter of the wealthy Carson’s who has been brought up by their slave Mammy. Dessa Is feisty and rebellious and in defending herself against unacceptable treatment finds herself in prison at 16, pregnant and the subject of writer Adam Nehemiah’s research. Ruth marries farmer Bertie who all but abandon’s her, leaving her lonely on the farm. Dessa escapes from prison and becomes the de facto leader of a group of slaves determined to head to the more enlightened west to escape slavery. They find an unlikely refuge with Ruth, who befriends them and aids them in their venture.

It’s a very dense story, in truth a bit too dense – there’s a hell of a lot going on – but it does make for a dramatically rich narrative. The score is up there with their best show, Ragtime, with evocative melodic music and lyrics which drive the story. From the rousing opening chorus of We Are Descended (which also closes the show) it packs in a whole load of good songs and choruses and here they are played and sung beautifully. In a surprising move, Dean Austin’s excellent band is dispersed, with keyboards and cello on stage and winds and violin in the corners of the auditorium. It works aurally, even if you are directly in front of a saxophone!, though it does restrict the already small playing space.

Director Andrew Keates has his work cut out staging it on such a small stage (well, floor) but with much ingenuity he pulls it off. When all 12 are on stage, with the two musicians, the space between audience and actors disappears completely. I think it is crying out for a bigger theatre, though not one so big as to lose the intimacy we get here. They didn’t appear to be using the visible head mic’s so the vocals have a lovely purity to them, though I did lose a few words.

The cast is uniformly excellent (casting by Benjamin Newsome again), all equally good as actors and singers. Both Cynthia Erivo and Cassidy Janson shine in the lead roles. Erivo conveys Dessa’s defiance with great passion and soaring vocals. Janson has more of a journey to make and I loved the way her character aged and her personality changed. She invested a lot of emotion in her performance, also vocally strong, and with an authentic accent. There isn’t a fault in the rest of this stunning cast.

This is my 7th Ahrens & Flaherty show and it’s amongst their best. I’d love to see it in a bigger space, but this European premiere is a huge success – and it’s in the West End at fringe prices! Time to book to go again…..

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