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Unexpected, ideal casting makes ‘Dessa Rose’ soar

(left right) Sydney Charles Harmony France Bailiwick Chicago’s productiDESSA ROSE by Lynn Ahrens Stephen Flaherty directed by Lili-Anne Brown with

(left to right) Sydney Charles and Harmony France in Bailiwick Chicago’s production of DESSA ROSE, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, directed by Lili-Anne Brown with music direction by James Morehead. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

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Highly recommended

When: Through April 5

Where: Bailiwick Chicago at
Victory Gardens Biograph Studio, 2433 N. Lincoln

Tickets : $40

Info: (773) 871-3000;

Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission

Updated: March 12, 2014 3:18PM

With its soaring score, and a story built on the ever thorny issue of race in this country, you need only listen to the initial anthemic chorale in “Dessa Rose,” to know that this is a musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the team behind “Ragtime.” (The same pair has penned the score for “Rocky, The Musical,” opening Thursday on Broadway.)

“Dessa Rose” which premiered in 2005, may be smaller in scale than “Ragtime.” But as Bailiwick Chicago’s finely wrought, gorgeously sung revival demonstrates, it has a beauty all its own, with a lush score firmly planted in American roots music (blues, folk, gospel, call-and-response), and a book and lyrics based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams.

At its core is the relationship between two women in Alabama and South Carolina in 1847. Dessa Rose (Sydney Charles), is a teenage slave of exceptional self-possession who escapes her master, is brutally punished and almost hung, gives birth to a baby and is pursued as “The Devil Woman.” Ruth (Harmony France) is a white socialite whose marriage to a dashing gambler leaves her isolated and alone on a half-built farm. And as she begins to break all the taboos — sheltering Dessa and other runaway slaves, including the supremely charming Nathan (an expertly tuned turn by Jayson “JC” Brooks), who helps her survive — her attitudes slowly start to shift.

Director Lili-Anne Brown has cast her production ideally, often with unexpected choices. Charles, such a sassy, sexy figure in Theo Ubique’s hit, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” does a complete about-face as Dessa, yet holds on to her special way with sarcasm. She also brings breathtaking power and
poignancy to “Twelve Children,” the remarkable song in which Dessa chronicles the names and fates of her siblings. France lets us see the fierce interior struggles Ruth goes through as she begins connecting to the slaves through common need, and as she finds common ground (and her own freedom) along the way.

Each of the 12 cast members becomes a memorable character, too, with Jaymes Osborne as Kaine, Dessa’s luminous first love; Jasondra Johnson as Ruth’s “Mammy,” Dorcas (who gives a fervent rendering of “White Milk and Red Blood”); David Schlumpf as Nehemiah, a white writer both beguiled and undone by Dessa; Steven Perkins as the shy but animated Harker; Pavi Proczko as a lecherous businessman; and Eunice Woods, Sasha Smith and Gilbert Domally. And when they join voices (backed by musical director James Moorhead’s outstanding band), their clarion sound signifies a tale worth passing down.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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