Stephen Flaherty and Lyn Ahrens' musicals seem to having a rough ride as of late with the Broadway closure of 'Rocky' recently announced, but any fan of their work would be pleased to know that they are being perfectly represented at the intimate Trafalgar Studios 2, where Andrew Keates' production of their 2005 musical Dessa Rose packs enough of a punch to knock out Balboa in one round.
As a composing team their work literally couldn't be more diverse. From larger hits such as 'Seussical' (name me a high school who hasn't produced this show) to 'Ragtime' and 'Once On This Island', they never shy away from challenging subject matter, and are in my opinion the top of their game when it comes to storytelling. As unique as this piece sounds, there are enough of Flaherty's playful and toe-tapping melodies woven into this through-composed musical to give stand alone numbers to each of the main characters, whilst maintaining an overall authentic soundscape of the ante-bellum South.
Based on the book by Sherley Anne Williams, the musical tells the unlikely story of the friendship that develops between a young white woman and a young black woman amidst the American South in the 1840s. Whilst the piece tracks their journeys, telling them in retrospect, it becomes much more than a coming of age tale of two people from opposite tracks, Lynn Ahrens's book successfully paints wide brush strokes as well as enough fine detail to tell a poignant and moving story.
Andrew Keates' production is simple, innovative and ultimately effective. Like 'Once on This Island', this is a musical about telling stories, and Keates allows this to take centre stage rather than being overcomplicated or gimmicky. The wide ranging book shifts effortlessly from one location to another, staged efficiently and using the confines of the venue to full effect. It is testimony to both the production and the performances that the subject matter is handled with care, and never feels pushy, moralistic or too self-righteous. Instead, the heart of both women is laid bare and the audience comes to judge their stories, whilst at the same time forced to consider the wider issue.
In a score that is entirely sung through the musical direction is first rate. The band surround the audience and the impressive sound design never falters, combined with assured leadership by an onstage MD who allows the score, which is the real heart of the piece, to breathe and live. There is an impressive show of musicianship from all performers that consistently feels effortless, and as the cast add their own percussion to many numbers this becomes musical theatre at its best.
There is not a weak link in this highly impressive ensemble cast, and despite the presence of some big West End names, the show never feels like it belongs to one person which is a remarkable achievement given the focus of the book. Each cast member perfectly pitches their performance to the confines of the venue, working together to tell the story in the most honest and effective way possible without feeling the need to make any one moment stand out. This is a collective achievement, making for a show that equals the sum of its parts, full of dignity and pride in the work.
Having said this, the lead females are more than worthy of mention due to their honesty and vocal delivery alone. Cassidy Janson is heart-breaking as Ruth, carrying a complex character with the perfect level of dignity and inner conflict. Critics have run out of superlatives to level at the ever-brilliant Cythia Erivo, who judges this role perfectly and allows it to be her most interesting character to date. She is, as so many have said before me and will no doubt continue to do so after, a remarkable performer with the brightest future ahead of her - blessed in this instance by a perfectly pitched production.
"the final impression is of a musical that feels like a hectic precis of an epic novel, too incident-packed to lead us into a radical reappraisal of black-white relationships."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The most compelling reason to catch this production is the sensational Cynthia Erivo, last seen in the X Factor musical I Can’t Sing. She brings a wide-eyed, wounded resilience to Dessa. But it’s her vocal precision and range that impress most, as she switches between piercing soulfulness, fierce dignity and honey-drenched charm."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press