Cynthia Erivo burst on to our radar with a show-stopping performance in the Chocolate Mernier Factory’s recent production of The Colour Purple. The young actress clearly made a wide impression as she was next cast in the big-budget, but ill-fated, I Can’t Sing. The less said about that the better. Thankfully Erivo has another chance for her star wattage to shine in Dessa Rose, a musical from ragtime creators Lynee Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
The musical tells the story of Dessa Rose, a young girl born into slavery who starts something of a revolution by attacking her ‘master’ after he kills the father of her unborn child. After escaping from imprisonment, Dessa and her friends hatch a plan to free them from slavery for life, relying on the help of a lonely white woman.
With so many similar themes and characters, it’s hard not to compare this musical to The Colour Purple. Overall, comparisons are not kind to Dessa Rose, it often feels more like The Colour Beige, Erivo’s stunning performance aside. The intimate performance space brings the cast and audience about as up close and personal as you can get in the West End but the small stage often feels cluttered with bodies.
The performances, while far from flawless, are generally strong (ignoring the odd dodgy accent here and there which sound like the Deep South by way of Eastern Europe). Edward Brauwa brings great warmth and charm to his role of all-round good guy Nathan. His rich tones suit some of the more soulful music perfectly. Cassidy Johnson is strong as Ruth, left in charge of a plantation by way of her absent husband. She strikes up a wary but tender relationship with Erivo’s Dessa and their brief scenes together are highlights of the night.
The show is well-paced but really comes alive in the second half with an injection of much-needed humour and warmth to cut through the disparity.
Without doubt, Dessa Rose belongs to Erivo. Her voice is note-perfect and sounds like warm liquid gold from the top of her range to the very depths. She managed to bring many of the audience members to tears thanks to her feisty and impassioned performance which was also tinged with frustration and devastation. She is a true star and it’s exciting to see what she does next.