Rachel York and LaChanze in Dessa Rose(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Rachel York and LaChanze in Dessa Rose
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Not until about halfway into the first act of Dessa Rose, when melodic strains reminiscent of Ragtime appear, does it seem that this dour new musical at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater could have been written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Forget the full-blown ballads of that triumph; here, it almost sounds as if the songwriting team that was also responsible for such shows as Seussical and A Man of No Importance is emulating Michael John LaChiusa, whose Marie Christine was presented by Lincoln Center Theater a few seasons ago. Both Dessa and Marie are about strong black women, and both were directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, who has a penchant for musicals that experiment with different cultures and different theatrical styles. Not atypical of Daniele's work and, lately, of Ahrens' and Flaherty's, Dessa Rose is a worthwhile but flawed experiment.

Based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams, Dessa Rose is about a 16-year-old slave girl who befriends a lonely white mother. By merging two separate but true stories, Williams fashioned a tale premised on the idea, "What if these women met?" But Ahrens, acting here as both lyricist and book writer, does not really clue us in as to what this show is about until late in the proceedings. We know from the arresting opening, in which the cast of 12 sings "We are descended from a long line of women" to a striking Flaherty melody, that the major players are Dessa Rose (LaChanze) and Ruth (Rachel York). But what do they have to do with each other? Will we come to know their life stories or just learn about a particular event in their lives?

Ahrens uses a storytelling device that has LaChanze and York sometimes adopting the voices and postures of their characters as old women to address the audience, then slipping back into the action as their younger selves. This takes some getting used to, and things get even hairier during a lengthy sequence in which Dessa Rose, having been arrested and sentenced to execution, tells part of her story in flashback to writer Adam Nehemiah (Michael Hayden). Ahrens and Daniele might have considered allowing their tale -- which, it turns out, only covers a short period of time in the women's lives -- to unfold naturally. As it is, the early events are presented episodically, leaving not nearly enough room for Dessa Rose's character to develop. All too quickly, we witness her romance with fellow slave Kaine (which results in pregnancy) and her imprisonment, then we flash back to the circumstances of her predicament and her flight from near-execution. Meanwhile, we learn that Ruth is married and has more or less been abandoned on her husband's farm. It's Ruth whom we come to understand and like more, largely because her part of the story is better rendered in the more well-written second act.

This imbalance between Act I, with its confusing timeline and heavy exposition, and the far more emotionally satisfying Act II is considerable. Dessa Rose is the story of both women, and the musical improves as it focuses more on the relationship between them. Ruth, living alone on the farm to which her wastrel husband never returns, allows several escaped slaves to live and work there -- including Dessa Rose. But Ruth finds that her workers are openly resentful of her. This turning of tables is exciting; for once, it is the master (or mistress) who fears the servants, not the other way around. When Ruth begins a romantic relationship with one of them, named Nathan (Norm Lewis), it is not white society that turns on her but the small black society under her thumb.

Stephen Flaherty has written some thrilling music for Dessa Rose, yet this is not his most memorable score, and he seems to have allowed orchestrators William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke to do a lot of the heavy lifting with their percussive arrangements flavored with African and American folk sounds. Many of the songs bleed into one another with no room for applause, and few of them stand out -- though the ones that do are quite lovely, such as Nehemiah's "Capture the Girl," Ruth's "At the Glen," and Dessa Rose's "Twelve Children." "In the Bend of My Arm" is a moody study of the show's three love stories -- Dessa Rose has an imaginary tryst with Kaine, Nehemiah's obsession with Dessa Rose grows, and Ruth and Nathan consummate their attraction -- but it would be more effective if Daniele hadn't allowed the sequence to look a lot like a Calvin Klein commercial. Comic relief is delivered by Ruth's proper mother (Rebecca Eichenberger) and the prickly but beloved slave Dorcas (Kecia Lewis) in "Ladies" and "Ten Petticoats."

As the sullen, angry Dessa Rose, LaChanze is very good but not served well enough by the writing. York makes Ruth a little annoying, a little pathetic, and very endearing; her character's journey from fearful young wife to independent woman is the spine of the plot. Lewis as Nathan provides needed warmth with his winning smile and smooth voice, and it's to his credit that he makes the not-quite-plausible "The Scheme" -- about Ruth's slaves contriving to get their freedom -- land as well as it does. Michael Hayden successfully takes Nehemiah from Dessa Rose's potential ally and would-be lover to something much more dangerous; he is offstage for far too long a stretch, but his final scene is quite stunning.

The powerful "We Are Descended" and the narration of the story by Dessa Rose's and Ruth's older selves indicate that Flaherty and Ahrens wanted this to be a story of mothers and daughters over generations, but not even the constant presence of the women's swaddled babies is enough to make that theme resonate. Instead, we have a tale of unlikely friendships, which is plenty fascinating in itself. If fans of Spamalot are willing to forgive the flaws of that show because it's so much fun, then maybe aficionados of the serious musical will forgive the imperfections of Dessa Rose because it offers thought-provoking drama and an unusual story told by one of the musical theater's most talented writing teams.