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A Rose By Any Other Name

Barbara & Scott on Dessa Rose, the recent Jerry Orbach tribute at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and Barrett Foa's act at The Duplex.

By New York City
Rachel York and Norm Lewis inDessa Rose(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Rachel York and Norm Lewis in
Dessa Rose
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In a musical theater season lately dominated by such light and frivolous fare as All Shook Up, Spamalot, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, along comes the musical drama, Dessa Rose by the formidable team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. One should not take lightly nor easily dismiss a work by the talents that gave us, among other shows, Ragtime, My Favorite Year, Once on This Island, and A Man of No Importance -- yet this is exactly the treament that Dessa Rose has received by the press.

We concede that this is a flawed musical, faltering in its misconceived book by Ahrens. Indeed, the book is a train wreck, careening off its tracks as it makes a shambles of (among other things) the story of the Underground Railroad. The poor structuring of the story and the way it's told are, of course, big humps to get over, but since when does a musical live or die strictly by its book?

How about taking a look at the show's music by one of today's great Broadway melodists, Stephen Flaherty? You should also consider some of the achingly beautiful lyrics by Ahrens. Then there's the inspired direction of Graciela Daniele, and several stunning performances. Add great lighting and sound design and it becomes apparent that there are some very good reasons for seeing Dessa Rose -- especially if you're someone who takes musical theater seriously.

The book requires the show's two leading actresses, LaChanze and Rachel York, to narrate the story as old ladies remembering their youth. This immediately causes two huge problems. First, it robs the piece of its drama; no matter what calamities befall these two, we know that they're going to survive. Second, they're forced to switch back and forth between their older and younger selves right in front of our eyes, over and over again. No matter how good the performers are at making these transformations, it's an artificial construct -- and it keeps reminding us that we're watching a play.

But LaChanze is otherwise compelling, especially when playing the 16-year-old Dessa Rose, the defiant young woman who leads a slave rebellion. Rachel York is nothing less than a revelation as Ruth, the Southern gentlewoman who discovers her own humanity and finds the courage to embrace it. Best known for musical comedy, York gives a breathtaking dramatic performance and sings with a throbbing intensity. The combination of her delicate acting and vocal prowess would, in a hit musical, be a celebrated achievement. In supporting roles, Norm Lewis, Rebecca Eichenberger, Michael Hayden, and Kecia Lewis all do standout work.

Dessa Rose is obviously not Ahrens & Flaherty at their best, but we're still glad that we saw it. Anybody can make a clunker, but these talented people and their gifted colleagues have achieved a fascinating failure.

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Jerry Orbach and Wanda Richert in a clip from42nd Street, shown at the Orbach tribute on March 24
Jerry Orbach and Wanda Richert in a clip from
42nd Street, shown at the Orbach tribute on March 24
The Babe Ruth of Broadway

Broadway memorials tend to be chock-a-block with performances by famous luminaries who knew and loved the late star. Jerry Orbach, who left us about three months ago, was honored at the Richard Rodgers Theatre last week with a tribute that was made up almost exclusively of speeches and film clips. It's ironic that the man who holds the record for the most Broadway musical performances in the history of the Great White Way should be best remembered for starring in a TV series for the last 12 years of his life.

Well, at least the memorial was held in the theater where he originally starred in Chicago (and where he met his future wife). And at least they showed some clips of Orbach in several of his Broadway performances. Two of the clips, one from Promises, Promises and the other from 42nd Street, demonstrated exactly why Orbach became a Broadway legend. It wasn't that he was a great singer or a dazzling dance man, it was that he totally committed himself as an actor. He was, in a word, fierce.

As for the stressing of Orbach's TV legacy -- well, Law & Order, the New York-based TV series in which he starred, gave countless jobs to NY actors. One might say that his huge popularity on television turned the Babe Ruth of Broadway into the Big Apple's Johnny Appleseed, a man who helped plant the seeds of success for hundreds of other actors here in his beloved hometown.

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Barrett Foa
Barrett Foa
One Step Foa, Two Steps Backward

We are more than a little disappointed when Broadway people don't take their cabaret acts seriously. Barrett Foa, who has replaced John Tartaglia in Avenue Q, recently put on a show at The Duplex and quite emphatically established himself as an undisciplined, unprepared nightclub performer. Obviously having failed to memorize his material, he went up on lyrics (which can happen to anyone) and missed some notes by a country mile (which is rare). His selection of songs was random and perverse, suggesting little if any taste on his part.

The show seemed to be geared toward a forgiving assembly of friends rather than a paying audience. It was predicated on a certain amount of boyish charm that, to a certain extent, balanced its ramshackle structure. Foa set a playful tone early on by joking, with the aid of a slide show, that his act marked the culmination of a journey from New York's wealthy Upper East Side to The Duplex on Christopher Street. But if he had seen some of the excellent cabaret shows that have graced The Duplex stage, perhaps he wouldn't have been so cavalier with his own effort.

Foa is a rich, handsome, and talented young man. His career has been zooming, and not without good reason; we saw him in the Off-Off-Broadway musical Cupid & Psyche and thought he was quite wonderful. But his solo performance at The Duplex did not do his reputation any favors.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]


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