In a season in which nearly every major musical has been of the light, forgettable variety, it's easy to want to gravitate toward more ambitious, substantial fare. Dessa Rose, the latest musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, would seem to fit the bill. But this show at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater is in its own way no easier to embrace than most of the frivolous musical entertainments for which it seeks to atone.
It's not from a lack of effort on the part of the writers or director Graciela Daniele that Dessa Rose fails to meet its objectives. Nor is the show itself based on an inherently poor subject for musicalization, as was the 2002 Lincoln Center Ahrens and Flaherty venture A Man of No Importance. But in translating Sherley Anne Williams's novel to the musical stage, the creators forgot that good intentions alone do not a great musical make.
The play is built on the intertwining stories of two women in the antebellum South: Ruth, a fallen society girl who secretly shelters runaway slaves on her husband's farm, and Dessa Rose, a young black girl on the run after inciting a slave rebellion. Both women are new mothers and searching for fulfillment of either the physical or spiritual kind; they eventually come together to participate in a scheme to buy Dessa Rose and her fellow slaves their freedom, and solve all their financial worries forever.
Rachel York and LaChanze are well cast as Ruth and Dessa Rose, and anchor the company, but the whole cast is bursting with talent: Eric Jordan Young, Michael Hayden, Norm Lewis, and James Stovall are just a few of the heavy-hitters who take on various supporting roles and make this one of the most sumptuous musical casts currently on the New York stages. They've been costumed appropriately in rags and period finery by Toni-Leslie James, and cavort on an attractive wooden set from Loy Arcenas that's beautifully lit by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
Unfortunately, the show's writing doesn't live up to its packaging. Unlike A Man of No Importance, which gave Ahrens and Flaherty too little to work with, here they have too much, and the majority of tough, discerning decisions about what would best serve the piece simply have not been made.
The problems start with Ahrens's libretto, which suffers from a relative lack of action, and a too-leisurely pace that imbues the proceedings with little energy. (The heroines, for example, don't meet face to face until the end of Act One, which gives their relationship little time to develop.) If Ahrens's way of countering the work's often static nature - having Ruth and Dessa Rose narrate the show from 64 years in the future - helps prod the show along, it's an inelegant solution that only further distances us from emotional involvement.
While Daniele's direction and choreography help smooth over this (and other rough edges), they can't do much about the surfeit of characters insufficiently developed in speech or song. It's impossible to feel much for either Adam Nehemiah (Michael Hayden), the white man tracking the escaped Dessa, when he parts with his barely seen betrothed, or Ruth's black nanny Dorcas (Kecia Lewis), who dies before we've gotten a chance to know her. Other characters drift similarly in and out of the narrative, though Dorcas does return after her death to sing her most important number (the soothing spiritual "White Milk and Red Blood").
The songs focusing on characters we're allowed to care about fare better. These include the sensual dual duet "In the Bend of My Arm," Ruth's somber and reflective "At the Glen," and a bouncy montage ("Just Over the Line") that follows Ruth, Dessa, and their charges on their fast-paced tour of bilking slave traders in several Southern cities.
Most of the other numbers, though, are poorly spotted or poorly executed, and serve only to fill time. Ruth's mother (Rebecca Eichenberger) and Dorcas get two comic songs about societal mores; the black slaves on Ruth's farm sing the lengthy "Terrible," which does little but narrate offstage action; "A Pleasure" is sung by Ruth, Dessa Rose, and the amorous man (William Parry) they're trying to fool while embarking on their moneymaking venture. Worse yet, the story's potentially exciting climax - spanning some 15 minutes of stage time, and set in and around a slave auction - passes almost entirely without singing of any sort.
This moment, more than any other, makes you intensely aware of the strong compositional foundation that this show doesn't have, but needs to be considered even a minor entry in the ranks of American folk opera. (The first act is almost entirely through-sung.) Flaherty's work is, as usual, unimpeachable; he's provided many wonderful 19th century-styled tunes for the work songs, hymns, and character numbers that constitute the score. (They're suitably orchestrated by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke; David Holcenberg is the musical director.) Ahrens's lyrical contributions, if shakier, are certainly acceptable. But none of it is enough to make Dessa Rose effective musical drama.
Ahrens and Flaherty have better tackled similar issues before; if their 1998 Ragtime was flawed, it was also a more focused and driven work, and their 1990 Once On This Island, which also had Daniele at the helm, thrived on quiet simplicity and detailed character work in ways that many of their later musicals have not. Yes, that show, a true concept musical celebrating communal storytelling, set a difficult standard. But it also showed that Ahrens and Flaherty were a songwriting team with a great amount of promise that, as of Dessa Rose, remains unfulfilled.
Lincoln Center Theatre