Henry Box Brown (4 stars)

Henry Box Brown

A slave's escape provides the basis for a powerful musical / history lesson

Henry Box Brown, the man, was a slave who was shipped to freedom in a large box. Although Frederick Douglass was among those who thought the manner of Brown's escape should be kept secret, to protect others who might attempt the same, Brown developed his own anti-slavery show, during which he emerged from the original box he travelled in.

Having been part of the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls, director Ben Harney brings Henry Box Brown's story to the stage in a substantial musical form. Written by Mehr Mansuri and co-composed with Frank Sanchez, the curtain opens on two families, white and black, masters and slaves. Henry (Paul Gee) falls for Nancy (Renee Reid), but the trading of slaves forces them apart, and he's forced to take extreme measures to escape. It's a simple enough story, but that's all a musical needs; there's a wash of emotive gospel and spiritual music that carries the audience along to a feelgood ending.

One element that needs work here is the way the narrative gets sidelined by the number of characters; Henry's character arc is simple enough, but it feels like more time is given to the change of heart by the Reverend Smith (Matt Peterson) than to Henry himself. Peterson conveys real depth as a man reaching for an unknown salvation, but Henry's inner-conflict is simple in comparison. Aside from his joyous reaction to seeing Nancy for the first time, Henry doesn't get enough chance to shine; as the protagonist, Henry needs to be more fleshed out for this show to be Broadway-ready.

As musical theatre, Henry Box Brown shines a light on the Underground Railroad – the network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves trying to escape to freedom – without resorting to 12 Years a Slave-style bloodshed; instead it's an educational but still rousing family show, making good use of youth players, and just what's needed to push the growing social divisions of today back into their box.

Assembly Rooms, until 26 Aug (not 13, 20), 2.30pm, £14–£15 (£13–£14).

Henry Box Brown – A Musical Journey

  • 4 stars

NYC Baha’i Unity Center and New York University Community Affairs Tony Award winner Ben Harney (Broadway's Dreamgirls), and writer Mehr Mansuri, lead this musical about an 1850s Virginia slave who ships himself to freedom in a box. In a fusion of original songs blending gospel, R'n'B and bluegrass, as well as a…

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