Given their continued dedication to crafting original, full-bodied book musicals out of complex narratives even as the genre becomes increasingly dominated by nostalgic movie rehashes and jukebox collages, composing team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty deserves the Purple Heart for service to the musical. But despite some soaring emotional moments and the frequent beauty of the spiritual-style songs in their new show, the duo’s investment seems misdirected in “Dessa Rose,” an absorbing story of two strong women in the pre-Civil War South that’s overly encumbered by the laborious duties of exposition.
Sherley Anne Williams’ 1986 novel imagines an encounter and the difficult bonding between two little-known figures from history who never met: A pregnant black woman in 1829 Kentucky who led an uprising on a slave coffle and was sentenced to hang; and a white woman living on an isolated farm in 1830 North Carolina who took in runaway slaves.
It’s easy to see what drew Ahrens and Flaherty to the material, which, like the best known of their historical musicals, “Ragtime,” brings a compassionate, sensitive eye to a story of racial injustice and the troubled relationship between black and white characters. While the novel’s shifting narrative voices seem an uneasy fit for a musical, it’s perhaps less daunting than adapting E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling, multicharacter tapestry of the birth of 20th-century America, which also fused history with fiction.
However, Ahrens falls short here of the skill of Terrence McNally, whose book for “Ragtime” wove the dense narrative into a cohesive shape with an expansive thematic reach. Despite the moving peaks of the two women’s experiences, “Dessa Rose” remains largely a character study whose deeper resonance is dulled by its enslavement more to the storytelling process than the story itself.
Ahrens and Flaherty have a gift for rousing opening numbers that set the bar high, and the soulful hymn to ancestry and sisterhood, “We Are Descended,” is no exception. It also serves to introduce 15-year-old slave girl Dessa Rose (LaChanze) and Ruth (Rachel York), a proper Charleston belle of 19.
But the device of having both characters narrate the story as old women is overused, often becoming talky and intrusive. This is aggravated by the actresses’ tendency to caricature their roles as seniors, particularly LaChanze, who seems to be aiming for something akin to Cicely Tyson in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” but comes off as hammy.
The excess of direct-address literary narration in place of action is compounded by the inclusion of writer Adam Nehemiah (Michael Hayden), a poorly developed character who could easily be dropped. Reasoning, “Bloody tales are good for sales,” Nehemiah interviews condemned “devil woman” Dessa in her cell for his lurid book of slave stories.
Act one has a heavy plot load to haul. Slave Kaine (Eric Jordan Young) gets Dessa pregnant, then is killed for retaliating when the master (William Parry) smashes his banjo. Dessa also attacks the master; she is whipped and branded, then sold to a slave trader (David Hess) despite the pleas of her mother (Tina Fabrique), whose 11 other children were taken away. When the slave trader tries to rape her, Dessa brains him with a rock, then frees the other slaves; she’s captured and imprisoned, to be hanged after the birth of her baby: “No sense destroying perfectly good property.”
Ruth, meanwhile, has married Bertie (Hess), an inveterate gambler who abandons her with their baby on his financially struggling farm. The death of Ruth’s childhood mammy Dorcas (Kecia Lewis) leaves her alone and all but unhinged. She tries to maintain the appearance of control while runaway slaves take up residence on the property, emboldened by her isolation and the absence of a man. When Dessa takes advantage of Nehemiah’s attraction to her and escapes, she also ends up on the farm, where she gives birth.
The supple orchestrations of William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke, which mix African drums with bluesy strings and reeds and bursts of jug-band sounds, and Flaherty’s stirring vocal arrangements are somewhat wasted in the first act on underdeveloped songs too frequently halted to accommodate more narration. Main exception is Ruth’s “At the Glen,” a haunting account of her solitude, both plaintive and angry, its demanding vocal range deftly hurdled by the estimable York.
Despite its wealth of incident, act one feels stodgily informational. The second act brings more narrative development and emotional involvement as Ruth’s loneliness draws her closer to Dessa’s friend and fellow runaway Nathan (Norm Lewis). But Dessa remains deeply suspicious of the white woman. The story gathers steam when Ruth agrees to help the slaves in their elaborate plan to escape to freedom, illustrated in “The Scheme.”
Ahrens and Flaherty are enormously accomplished songwriters, and much of the second-act music is glorious. “Fly Away” in its reprise harnesses the powerful sense of escape in spirituals; “Just Over the Line” contains spine-tingling choral work; and “White Milk and Red Blood,” churned through the formidable pipes of Kecia Lewis, is powerfully emotional. “In the Bend of My Arm” is a fine example of the composing team’s peerless skill at weaving multiple strands into a single song, in this case a sensual statement of love between Dessa and Kaine’s ghost, Ruth and Nathan, and Nehemiah, obsessed with recapturing the escaped Dessa.
On the downside, some of the lighter numbers feel superfluous, notably “Ladies” and “Ten Petticoats,” both led by Ruth’s mother (Rebecca Eichenberger). And the composers show a frustrating refusal to charge up Dessa’s act-one closer “Twelve Children” to full power, despite a thrilling central passage that demands a few bars more; likewise the brisk epilogue reprise of “We Are Descended,” which begs for more anthemic treatment.
Notwithstanding that this may be less than ideal material for a musical, there are many rewards in the story of these proud, independent-minded women, played with grit and conviction by LaChanze and York. Their fine voices are backed by several others in the cast, chief among them Kecia Lewis, Norm Lewis, and Young, all of whom play strongly etched characters.
A repeat collaborator of Ahrens and Flaherty, director-choreographer Graciela Daniele vigorously uses the full expanse of designer Loy Arcenas’ stylized, rough-hewn wood set with its rear ramp to give the small-scale musical a robust, populated feel. While tuner’s oral-history aspect might have worked better on a proscenium stage than the Newhouse’s thrust, there’s much to be said for the closeness here to the actors.
The most vital craft contribution comes from Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s textured lighting scheme, richly evoking the darkened cellar jail, the dappled shade of a tree or the open-skied promise of freedom.