Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

An Engrossing Production of Dessa Rose

Also see Richard's reviews of Thoroughly Modern Millie and Smuin Ballet's Obrigado, Brazil

Carly Hughes, C. Kelly Wright and Linda Mugleston
TheatreWorks is presenting the West Coast premiere of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's compelling musical, Dessa Rose. The melodious piece is based on the best selling novel by Shirley Anne Williams and it captures the rhythms and roots of 19th century America.

Dessa Rose opens with a former slave named Dessa Rose (Carly Hughes) at age 80 and an 84-year-old white farm owner Ruth Sutton (Linda Mugleston) looking back on their lives. They, along with the superb chorus, sing the powerful song "We Are Descended."

Slave Kaine (Carmichael Blankenship) has gotten 16-year-old Dessa pregnant. The white master (Brian Frutiger) is furious at this and destroys Kaine's only musical instrument, a banjo. Kaine retaliates by striking the man and is in turn killed by the master. Dessa attacks the abusive owner and she is whipped, branded and sold to a slave dealer. The dealer of flesh tries to rape Dessa; she kills him with a rock and frees the other slaves who were to be sold.

The slaves escape but Dessa is captured and taken away to solitary prison to await her death sentence. The captors decide to wait until she gives birth, as they feel there is no sense in destroying perfectly good "property." Malicious reporter Adam Nehemiah (Ian Leonard), who is writing a shocking book of slave stories, interviews Dessa in prison since "Bloody tales are good for sales." He becomes sexually obsessed with the slave who "has skin like pekoe tea." She attacks the journalist who tries to rape her and she escapes from prison. She finds the other runaway slaves and they head north hoping for freedom. The slaves come upon a remote farm where a lonely white woman named Ruth Sutton lives with her baby.

Ruth, who was raised to be a proper southern belle in Charleston, has been married to inveterate gambler Bertie Sutter (Travis Poole). Bertie is away most of the time gambling and he had finally abandoned her and the child when the slaves arrive. They help the lady who is struggling alone on the financially strapped farm. The runaway slaves and Ruth devise a wonderful plan to obtain money in which all would share the fortune. The slaves would be able to go west where they would be free. The second act is about this lucrative plan.

Stephen Flaherty's melodies are voluptuous and some of the songs sound similar to his score of Ragtime. Many of the songs are rousing spiritual and folk songs with some very clever ragtime melodies for the lighter pieces, such as "Ladies," sung by Ruth's mother (Mary Melnick) and household slave Dorcas (C. Kelly Wright). Both have pleasing voices on this delightful song. The waltz melody following this song is equally charming.

The second act is just glorious. "In the Bend of My Arm" shows the composing team's matchless skill at interlacing multiple strands into a single strand. Lynn Ahrens adds powerful lyrics to the spirituals "Fly Away" and "Just Over the Line." The comical lyrics for "Ten Petticoats" are entertaining as well.

Ahrens falls short in the book for the musical, especially in the first act, where there is just too much going on and it becomes cumbersome. There is just too much talking to the audience instead of action, making this act very top heavy. Even the journalist Adam Nehemiah is not properly fleshed out. However, the writing in the second act becomes comprehensive and exciting, along with an eclectic mix of songs to keep the action moving.

All in the twelve member cast, staged by Robert Kelly, give brilliant performances. They expertly present a moving tale throughout the show. Carly Hughes (Off-Broadway SIDD plus Dreamgirls at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera) gives a flawless performance as Dessa. She is able to convincingly switch from being a 16-year-old to an 80-year-old and shows the character's feisty spirit, especially when singing "Something Of My Own." She has a soul stirring voice when singing about Dessa's family in "Twelve Children."

Linda Mugleston (New York revival of Wonderful Town and Happy End at ACT) is excellent as Ruth Sutton. She also is able to successfully switch back and forth from being a young southern bell to an 84-year-old woman. The actress is charming on the satiric "Ladies" and gives a poignant performance as a lonely woman in the second act, especially when singing "At the Glen."

Carmichael Blankenship (A Little Princess, Ragtime, Little Night Music) as the slave Kaine gives a lively performance in the song "Ol' Banjar." He has a sparkling voice singing this "folk song." John Eric Parker (New York All Shook Up, Rent) gives a powerful performance as the slave Nathan and has an impressive voice in a duet with fellow slave Harker, played delightfully by Brian Yates Sharber (Memphis, The Wiz and recently Putting it Together at SF Playhouse).

Travis Poelle (SFBATCC award for best actor in Buddy Holly Story plus the recent reading of Emma) reeks of Southern charm as the gambler husband Bertie Sutton. He has great vocal chops when singing the waltz melody with Linda Mugleston.

C. Kelly Wright (Into the Woods, Memphis, Crowns) gives a delightful performance as the household slave, and she has a captivating voice in the comic song "Ladies." Ian Leonard (My Antonia, Jane Eyre) gives an impressive performance as the vindictive reporter Adam Nehemiah and has a striking voice singing "Ink." Brian Frutiger (My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha at Music Theatre of Wichita) gives an efficient performance in each of several roles. Cathleen Riddley (Crowns, Beggar's Holiday) is wonderful playing Rose and Aunt Chloe, and Mary Melnick (Into the Woods, Ragtime) gives a good performance as Ruth's mother. Dawn Troupe (Ragtime, Memphis) is first rate as Annabel and the field hand soloist. She has a vibrant voice on the potent melodies.

Andrea Bechert's staging is a setting of wooden planks and walls to make a stockade for Dessa's prison scene. Prop are kept to a minimum. Allison Connor's costumes are authentic to the period, and mood lighting by Steve B. Mannshardt is extraordinary. Direction by Robert Kelly and Christopher Windom's choreography keep the scenes moving swiftly. The dances by the slaves are very exciting.

Dessa Rose plays through October 29th at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. For tickets please call 650-903-6000 or visit

TheatreWorks' next production will be the West Coast premiere of David Grimm's The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, opening at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto on November 29th.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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