The New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Dessa Rose” sneaks up on you. More impressive than any history book lesson is the show’s emotional thump. In the end, “Dessa Rose” got me. And I bet it’ll get you, too.
The New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Dessa Rose” sneaks up on you. During the first act, it rumbles along as if it’s yet another by-the-numbers reminder that slavery was bad — really, really bad. But by the end of the night, the show has wormed its way into your heart, prompting a surprisingly emotional reaction that’s a pretty clear sign that we, as Americans, are still dealing with our country’s defining issues — the twin sins of slavery and racism.
The creative team for this show — which gets its New England premiere through May 18 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts — is Lynn Ahrens (music) and Stephen Flaherty (book and lyrics), the duo that gave us the acclaimed musical adaptation of “Ragtime.” You may be reminded of that fact in the show’s opening moments — “Dessa Rose” is kind of a first-cousin to “Ragtime,” another exploration of the extraordinary healing that can take place when people reach across racial boundaries to help each other. Those acts of compassion, especially in the face of brutal bigotry, raise us all up.
The show, set in 1847, follows Dessa Rose (Uzo Aduba), a teen slave who’s as mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore. When her boyfriend, who’s also the father of the child she’s carrying, is killed by his owner, Dessa Rose retaliates. Soon the mother-to-be is sentenced to hang.
At the same time, a white woman named Ruth (Leigh Barrett) is having a similar cultural epiphany from a very different vantage point. Ruth’s own family is a bust — her mother is capable of offering only genteel southern bromides that have nothing to do with the real world. Her mom has such a limited view of women that, in its own way, it’s almost as stifling as racism. And Ruth’s husband is a loser, mysteriously off on the road, and probably never coming home.
That leaves Ruth on the farm with no one to help her but her own slaves, and a sudden influx of blacks on the lam, including Dessa Rose. Ruth warms to the gentle charm of Nathan (an endearing performance by Edward M. Barker), slowly realizing that Nathan, a black man who’s paid to serve her, is her only real friend. It’s the show’s “Driving Miss Daisy” moment.
But even more important than her relationship with Nathan is Ruth’s relationship with Dessa Rose. That’s the backbone of the musical, but sometimes Ahrens and Flaherty seem to lose track of it. Based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams, the musical is loaded with plot, so much plot that it sometimes distracts the creative team from the key story. We’re here to see how Ruth and Dessa, representing two different races, reach an acceptance — maybe even a love — of each other. After delays in telling that story, the show rushes to fit it into the second act. As a result, you may have a hard time believing Dessa Rose’s transformation at the end, because it comes so fast, and it’s so complete. But I bet you’ll still be struck by the power of it. My throat clutched and tears welled. I never saw that coming.
Forgive me if this sounds pedestrian, but I longed for a couple of big musical numbers, something to hum on the way out of the theater. But Flaherty’s score doesn’t really go there. He doesn’t shoot for show-stoppers; this is more atmospheric music, ballads such as “At the Glen” and “Fly Away” that are designed to make hearts swell not toes tap.
Every time director Rick Lombardo stages a musical, Leigh Barrett’s phone seems to be the first number he dials. For good reason; she’s solid, dependable, and I loved some of the subtle stuff she did in the closing scenes. But be prepared: In the show, Barrett has a honking southern accent that disappears when she sings. And I felt bad for her both times she saw the family’s beloved black servant and had to exclaim, “Mammy!” I thought Al Jolson was in the house.
Todd Alan Johnson is also on Lombardo’s speed dial. Again, for good reason. He’s so convincing in this show, I didn’t even recognize him in his first scene. And his performance as a man writing a book about rebel slaves was so intriguing, I wished the part were bigger.
The great virtue of Uzo Aduba’s performance is that she feels no compunction to make Dessa sweet and cuddly. She’s taking her cue from Ahrens, who isn’t afraid to show the irascible nature that’s probably required of a person who dares to stand up to a society of bigotry. The drive to freedom isn’t pretty, and it’s not for the faint of heart. It requires a tough nut like Aduba’s Dessa.
Half-way through “Dessa Rose,” I was concerned that Ahrens-Flaherty-Lombardo and company weren’t going to bring anything new to the issue of slavery. But I was wrong. The musical explores little-known aspects of the fight for freedom, including the fact that many slave-owners were shocked when their slaves fled after being emancipated — the owners actually believed they enjoyed and appreciated their lives as slaves.
But more impressive than any history book lesson is the show’s emotional thump. In the end, “Dessa Rose” got me. And I bet it’ll get you, too.“Dessa Rose” Arsenal Center for the Arts Watertown Tickets: $40-$59 Call: 617-923-8487