Dessa Rose - reviews of 'thrilling' slavery musical

Aug 5, 2014

Cynthia Erivo 'sensational' in moving musical about a friendship between a slave and a plantation owner

Scott Rylander
What you need to know

American musical Dessa Rose has opened at Trafalgar Studios London. The musical, first performed off-Broadway in 2005, features a book by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty

The story is based on Sherley Anne Williams's novel about a slave woman called Dessa and a white plantation owner, Ruth, in the antebellum South. Pregnant Dessa is accused of murder but forms an unlikely bond with Ruth, who has been left in sole charge of a plantation following her unsuccessful marriage.

Andrew Keates directs a cast starring Cynthia Erivo (last seen in I Can't Sing) as Dessa. Runs until 30 August.

What the critics like

"Flaherty's score and Ahrens's at once poetic and conversational lyrics are potently moving as well as musically pleasing," says Kate Bassett in The Times. Dessa Rose deserves to transfer for a longer West End run, but catch it now, thrillingly up-close.

The most compelling reason to catch this passionate musical is "the sensational Cynthia Erivo", says Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard. Her vocal precision and range impress most, as she switches between piercing soulfulness, fierce dignity and honey-drenched charm.

"The passion and often graphic violence are handled with economy and flair," says Paul Vale on The Stage. Erivo embraces the title role, delivering a studiously measured performance and the evocative score triumphs.

What they don't like

For all the liveliness of the score and the liberal intentions behind a show, "Lynn Ahrens's libretto is too complicated for its own good", says Michael Billington in The Guardian. Ahrens tries to cram in too much of the source novel, resulting in a show that is more exhausting than spiritually enlightening.

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