This is the year of the women. Women are speaking up (almost like never before) for themselves. They are speaking up against abuse, harassment, and the traditional patriarchal notions. Unlike some past feminist efforts, the current effort is going beyond equality of pay and equality of work to demanding equality of treatment, privilege, and respect.
So, perhaps, it is with a unique sense of timing that the first show of the Chromolume Theatre (FB) 2018 season is Dessa Rose. Dessa Rose, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, based on a novel by Sherley Anne Williams, was first produced Off-Broadway in 2005, and is making its Los Angeles premier. The original novel fictionalizes and combines two historical incidents: In 1829 a pregnant slave woman led a revolt against slave traders, and in 1830 a white woman had a habit of taking in runaway slaves. The book combines the two stories, with the two women meeting and participating in a plan to free the runaways. It also times well for Black History Month, as it is based on the work of an African-American writer, and tells a story about powerful and proud black survival in the pre-Civil War South, and is being presented in a minority owned and operated theatre.
(As an aside, a recently saw a wonderful explanation of why Black History Month is appropriate, but White History Month would not be. Whites typically have the luxury of knowing their past and ethnicity, and knowing where their families came from and when they came to the US. Blacks had that all taken away from them. For many, the best they know is “Africa”, which is a continent, not a nation. They’ve had their past ripped from them, without consent, and Black History Month is a way to reclaim that past, celebrating all achieves of the Black community as their own.)
Dessa Rose also falls into category of music I had heard, but never seen. I’m quite a fan of the works of Ahrens and Flaherty, and how they have a musical style that isn’t repetitive with a particular sound (some other composing teams make it clear when you hear their work who they are). I’ve had the CD of Dessa Rose for quite a few years, but could never wrap my head around the story. Now I can, and hearing those songs in the context of the story makes them so much more meaningful. That’s one reason why I like Chromolume’s season so much: all of their mainstage shows are Los Angeles premieres, shows that I have only heard but never seen.
Dessa Rose tells the story of two women: Dessa Rose and Ruth. You can find a detailed synopsis on the Wikipedia page. The story is presented as the two women telling the story to their grandchildren so that it isn’t loss (a similar motif to Once on this Island, demonstrating the importance of shared storytelling). Dessa’s story concerns how she was born a slave, fell in love at 16, get pregnant, watch the man she loved get killed, and killing the overseer herself in response. She then leads a slave revolt, gets arrested and sentenced to hang. She eventually escapes jail and with the help of other slaves from the revolt, makes her way to Ruth’s plantation. Ruth, who is the black sheep of a different plantation family, marries young to a gambler who abandons her in an unfinished plantation with a new infant. She is accepting of the blacks, and that plantation soon becomes a haven for escaped slaves where no questions are asked. At the plantation, Ruth and Dessa’s stories combine, and the remainder of the musical is how they learn to accept each other, and standup for dignity and freedom.
This is a powerful story, and in some sense, a dark story. Although there are some energetic songs, one can see why it isn’t a typical Broadway story or musical, and thus, never moved from the Off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse to a larger venue. In the tiny space that is the Attic Theatre (typically configured for 49 seats), it works and the closeness gives it extra power and meaning. It is a clear example of a show that is meant for an intimate theatre space.
What was my reaction? Going in, I really knew only the music, and that it was about the relationship of an escaped slave and a white woman. I’ll note also that I was having a bad afternoon, for reasons I shan’t go into other than to say: Always double check the time for an afternoon matinee, and sometimes it can be equally bad to arrive too early.
So, my reaction: I found this to be an incredibly moving musical, with very strong performances. There were just a few points where I felt a little bit of a drag in the story, and the close of Act I was more of a dark close than one is accustomed to see. But overall, I found the story timely — especially in this era of women speaking up for themselves and not putting up with being mistreated anymore. This was a strong show about women taking back their power and putting their destiny in their own hands — not the hands of their masters or their husbands. It was women finding their own way in society. It is a message that resonates with today.
Director , James Esposito (FB) had a challenge in staging this production. Not only did he have to draw powerful performances out of his cast, but he had to figure out how to make the production work in a very tiny space, with very limited sets, options, and budgets. But the true measure of live theatre is creativity, and productions can thrive on imagination and performance, whereas film demands realism. The set here was simple: no real set pieces, just some ramps and spaces. Looking back, there also wasn’t a large number of specific props. Yet none of this was necessary, as the actors through performance alone created all the different places and made them real, so that you saw where you were in your imagination and in the movement. As a small example of that, watch the background performers and their motions. They are doing their house and field work without props, but establishing where and when they are. That’s the type of notion that I believe comes from the director working with the acting team.
In the lead performance positions were Shaunté Tabb (FB, FB) as Dessa Rose and Abby Carlson (FB) as Ruth. Tabb was a knockout. An incredibly strong singing voice (no amplification needed) combined with a powerhouse performance just blew me away. You believed she was who she was portraying. Similarly, Carlson was strong as Ruth. In that role, she had a bit more leeway to let go and relax, and when she did, there was just this natural luster that shone through. Again, there was a strong singing voice and equally strong performance that blended exceptionally well with Tabb’s Dessa Rose.
In more of a supporting role were Mykell Barlow (FB)’s Nathan and Ken Maurice Purnell (FB)’s Harker. Barlow was outstanding. A wonderful voice and a engaging stage presence created an instantly likable and strong character. Purnell’s Harker had a smaller presence, but the two worked well together.
The mothers in this story were repres ented in a different way: Kymberly Stewart (FB) played multiple mothers: Dessa Rose’s mother Rose, Ruth’s Mammy Dorcas, and an additional character, Aunt Chloe. Ruth’s actual mother was portrayed by Claire Buchignani (FB). Stewart’s portrayal of the different Mammy’s was interesting. Traditionally, the “Mammy” is a problematic character and oft stereotypical, but Stewart gave both an interesting rebellious and subversive nature, encouraging both Ruth and Rose, as different mothers, to be their own person and do what is right for them. Buchignani caught my eye from the opening number: there was just something in her face and movement that drew my eyes to her. Both were strong in their shared numbers such as “Ladies” and “Ten Petticoats”, and Stewart was outstanding in “White Milk and Red Blood”, emphasizing how we are all the same.
Matt Mancuso (FB), as Adam Nehemiah, was perhaps the villain of the piece, if there was one. Initially a friend to Dessa Rose, after her escape he vowed to capture her, and thus was the hunter to be avoided. Mancuso captured the two different sides of his character exceptionally well: contrast his performances in both “Ink” and “Capture the Girl”.
The remaining actors tended to play multiple characters, both in the ensemble as well as some named characters: Mikhail Roberts (FB) [Bertie, Sheriff Hughes, Auctioneer #2]; Bradley Alan Turner (FB) [Kaine, Phillip]; Zach Campa (FB) [Mr. Steel, Mr. Oscar, Sheriff Pine]; Ambrey Benson (FB) [Annabel, various slaves]; and Margaret Berkowitz (FB) [Susannah]. All were strong singers and ensemble performers; there were a few that shone exceptionally in my mind. Berkowitz’s Susannah brought an interesting sunshine to the piece — not because she was the only blonde, but there was just something about how she portrayed Susannah that had a lightness about her. Roberts captured the cad nature of Bertie, who abandons Ruth, well in the little characterization we had, but a bit more interesting was Campa’s Sheriff Pines in his interaction with Adam Nehemiah when Dessa is almost uncovered. Strong performance. Campo was also great as Mr. Oscar interacting with Ruth. Turner had a strong portrayal of Kaine in his early interactions with Dessa Rose.
Music was provided by an offstage band led by music director Daniel Yokomizo (FB) on Piano, John A. Graves on Bass†, and Jeff Fish (FB) on Percussion‡. For a small group, they had a very nice sound that worked well with the small show.
†: Simon Landau on 2/3, 2/24, and 2/25
‡: Anthony Jones (FB) on 2/2, 2/3, 2/10, 2/16, 2/17, and 2/23; Jon Lundgren on 2/9, 2/24, and 2/25.
The remainder of the creative and production team were: Michael Marchak (FB) [Choreography]; Kara McLeod (FB) [Costume Design]; Jesse Baldridge (FB) [Lighting Design]; Jasmine Moreno (FB) [Stage Manager]; Ken Werther (FB) [Publicity]. There was no sound design credit. A few notes: the speakers had an annoying buzz that can hopefully be corrected in the future. Marchak’s choreography was simply and appropriate for the show McLeod’s costume seemed to establish period well. Lastly, Baldridge’s lighting established time and mood well.
Dessa Rose has one more weekend in its run at Chromolume Theatre (FB). You should get tickets now if you can; they are selling out fast and you don’t want to miss this show. There were tickets on Goldstar, but they are sold out.
Chromolume just announced their Hollywood Fringe Festival production, and I’m excited. Here’s what they wrote:
We are happy to announce that our 2018 Hollywood Fringe Festival production will be the one-act musical, The Story of My Life! We are also excited to announce we will be performing at the The Hobgoblin Playhouse. We are excited to bring this story to you…coming in June! Click on the link below to find out more!
And for those of you who don’t know, if you purchase your season subscription before our current production ends, you will get free tickets to see this production!
We last saw Story of My Life back in 2009, right after the death of our dear friend Lauren. The story touched me in special ways; it is just a beautiful and meaningful show. I’m looking forward to it. Subscribe before Dessa Rose closes, and I believe it will be included in your subscription.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
February concludes with James and the Giant Peach at the Chance Theatre (FB) in the Anaheim Hills, and tickets for Dublin Irish Dance Stepping Out at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB).
March was supposed to start with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner, but that shifted back a week. This enables us to see a remounting of Leslie Jones starring in Prez – The Lester Young Story that weekend. This is followed on the second weekend with the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB) and the MRJ Man of the Year Dinner. The next weekend brings Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend is currently open. The last weekend of March is open for theatre, but there will be the Men of TAS Seder.
April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB).
Continuing into May and June: The first weekend in May will bring School of Rock at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), with the following weekend bringing Soft Power at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The middle of May brings Violet at Actors Co-op (FB). The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open. June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). Additionally in June we’re seeing the postponed Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), The Color Purple at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and possibly Do Re Mi at MTW. The latter, however, is on a Sunday night in Long Beach, and so Fringing may win out. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018! We may also be adding an Ahmanson Theatre (FB) subscription, given their recent announcements regarding the next season.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.