Dessa Rose is a runaway slave. Ruth is a desperate farmwife. Dessa Rose is black. Ruth is white. Their lives collide. Their characters clash. This isn’t a one-sided rescue. This is all encompassing liberation of lives. Both women must confront their childhood beliefs before they can find individual freedom.
Director Lili-Anne Brown skillfully orchestrates the show in gritty whimsy. The terrific cast finds the heart, the humor and the harmony in their expressive storytelling. At the core, Sydney Charles (Dessa Rose) and Harmony France (Ruth) charm as they narrate each other’s backstories. Their nostalgic look back belies their harsh beginnings. The narration sets up pivotal milestones. We see Charles magnificently transform from loving young girl to devil-woman. Her metamorphosis is always spurred by an injustice, real or perceived. The versatile Charles speaks in a child-like simplistic wonder until she starts raging in a feisty fury. The changeover is impressive and disheartening.
France has her own poignant conversion from glassy-eyed bride to tough business woman. Her delightful encounters with Jayson JC Brooks (Nathan) are these curt yet bold flirtations. They find solace together in a forbidden intimacy “In the Bend of My Arm.” On the other side of the stage, Charles and Jaymes Osborne (Kaine) join in the same song. Their longing is sung with tender soulfulness. The song is a standout within the robust playlist by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music).
Music Director James Morehead conducts passionate to playful melodies France, Charles and Pavi Proczko have a hilarious tryst in the frolicking “A Pleasure.” The prim Brigitte Ditmars (Ruth’s mom) and the spunky Jasondra Johnson (Dorcas) mirthfully debate ladies’ virtues in “Ten Petticoats.” Later, the diva-esque Johnson belts out a gorgeously haunting “White Milk and Red Blood.”
From commencement to conclusion, this sublime ensemble captivates. At the beginning and the end, they appear in contemporary street clothes singing the haunting “We are Descended.” The finale message is especially powerful after knowing what transpired in the-in-between. Looking at the collection of men and women, black and white, I’m overwhelmed in the emotional finality. Whether it’s the 1800s or 2000s, people evolve into a better person by their own choice.
DESSA ROSE enchants as an evocative musical of timeless truth.
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes includes an intermission
At Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln
Based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams
Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Lili-Anne Brown
Music direction by James Morehead
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm
Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm
Thru April 5th
Buy Tickets at www.victorygardens.org
Production photo by Michael Brosilow