LadyShip, a polished new musical by twin sisters Laura Good and Linda Good of The Twigs, catches the present-day #MeToo feminist wave by revealing a story of abused women of times past.
Everyone knows the UK’s Australian colony began as a penal colony. Few think about the women convicts who helped populate and sustain it in the early days. This show brings us the story of a representative handful of female prisoners of various ages, including a girl of 11. Stuffed into a ship’s lowest deck, they’re hauled on a nightmarish months-long journey to the other side of the world.
LadyShip is an old-style musical, with short spoken scenes and tightly constructed musical numbers with traditional Broadway-style melodies. The songs are alternately invigorating and delicate, their enchantment heightened by well-crafted harmonies.
The book is clever and concise, though the lyrics wobble between smooth and trite. Fortunately, strong, beautiful music and an interesting story can survive intermittent stock phrases and clichéd rhymes.
The story and the music reflect the characters’ resourcefulness, channeled by an able cast with excellent musical-theater voices. As in many New York Musical Festival (NYMF) productions, the staging is fairly bare-bones: There’s just a minimal set and a three-piece orchestra. But director Samantha Saltzman and scenic designer David Goldstein make the stage come alive from the start.
Teenage sisters Alice and Mary (Maddie Shea Baldwin and Caitlin Cohn respectively) are framed for shoplifting. Eleven-year-old Kitty (Noelle Hogan), dragooned on a similar charge, joins them in jail and then on the prison ship with other miscreants. Most have been arrested on trivial or trumped-up charges. One, the ill-used upper-class Lady Jane (Jennifer Blood), has fallen on hard times. The others come from the poorer classes. But on board they bond, helping each other survive starvation, illness, and the crew’s rapacity.
Some elements of the plot are a little pat. For one thing, Captain Adams (the impressive baritone Quentin Oliver Lee) seems a little too noble to be true. And too often he arrives just in time, Cory Booker-like, to rescue one or another of the women from a rape or a beating.
No doubt there were humane souls helping facilitate this decades-long process. There might even have been more than one on a given voyage. Mulatto crewman Finn (honey-voiced tenor Jordon Bolden) feels sorry for 16-year-old Mary, then falls for her and she for him. What musical doesn’t need a romance? Their duet “Ready to Begin” is one of the highlights of the score, and of the production.
But although Finn is a loving son and a heroic lover, the women’s fates aren’t ultimately up to him. Mary and her sister will need to find their own way to survive and, we hope, make lives for themselves in the new country.
The whole story revolves around women in untenable situations finding ways to do it for themselves. Alice and Mary launch the theme from the Old Bailey Jail, with the delicate melodies of “A Way Out.” Later, on the ship, a de facto mother-daughter relationship forms between Lady Jane and Kitty, while wily Abigail’s entrepreneurial skills become essential survival tools (“Only the Strong Survive,” “Everything Has a Price”).
A privileged bully (Trevor St. John-Gilbert) and a rough, obnoxious seaman (Justin R. G. Holcomb in an especially entertaining turn) depict the negative side of 18th- and 19th-century manhood. But the show doesn’t make unfair generalizations. Rather it manages to give a fairly well-rounded picture of terrible historical injustice and hardship, while adhering to the conventions of traditional musical theater.
In a few respects the show takes an easy way out: Mary’s postpartum scene; the Captain’s just-in-time rescues; an ending that withholds any certainty about the characters’ fates. But overall, it’s both artistically and historically transportive.
The second act belongs to Alice. Somehow it feels right that the older sister, the one who doesn’t get a love interest, should smash through with the most explicitly feminist message. She gets both the showstopper “I’m Done” and the show’s big musical climax, “I’ll Find a Way.” Baldwin (“Bright Star” on Broadway) brings an understated charisma and a lucid, burnished voice to the role.
LadyShip ran at the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) July 10-14, 2019. Visit the show’s website for more information and news.