Dessa Rose - 31 July 2014 Review

Cynthia Erivo sets the studio on fire with her soaring vocal performance

So rare is it that I feel totally enveloped in the midst of a piece of theatre, but during last night’s production of Dessa Rose at Trafalgar Studios 2 it was hard not to be! In a tiny black box studio with around 100 seats, Stephen Flatherty’s musical about the unlikely bond between a black woman and a white woman in the 19th century erupts around you. The play is quite the attack on the senses which leaves a lasting and very thoughtful impression.

Dessa Rose is based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams and tackles the issue of slave labour and racial inequality in America’s Deep South. It is a brutal yet touching commentary on the struggle of black workers to gain justice and freedom, examining their lives and the people at the forefront of their battle. Having heard of the production in it’s 2005 off Broadway run, it is a pleasure to see such a meaty piece of theatre brought to London.

This production of Dessa Rose, directed by Andrew Keates, is simple yet loaded. Using a few small set pieces, some percussion and some authentic costume, the cast adeptly deliver a full scale musical. Benjamin Newsome has expertly cast a magnificent troupe of actors who all go above and beyond in this piece, each perfectly fulfilling the rigors of their roles. I was in awe, especially by the at times extremely subtle but so effective characterisation Cassidy Janson bought to the role of Ruth. Even when she wasn’t the direct focus of a scene, her reactions were spot on!

The scoring of this musical is tough, but that is no problem for the cast, especially leads Janson and Cynthia Erivo. To be honest, every time I see Cynthia’s name on a production, I know it is in safe hands (safe vocal chords?!) That gal can BELT. Honey wow! Credit should also go to the operatic beauty delivered by Cameron Leigh, who was perfect in all of her roles as a Southern Belle. This show is a singing spectacular! The only problem was that the space was SO small but filled with SUCH big voices; the audience perhaps could of used a little distance.

Despite the tiny space, it was a wonderful experience to have the musicians surrounding the audience; it had the effect of almost directly implicating us in the story. Conductor and MD Dean Austin was also so passionate, story aside, it is wonderful to watch musicians work…after all they are performers too!

Overall this was a fantastic performance in an intimate venue. The only thing the show really needs is a touch more space to allow the audience some breathing room. That said, the slight claustrophobia works well with the themes of the piece.

Dessa Rose London Review
31 July 2014, Trafalgar Studio One