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NYMF Reviews 2019: LadyShip

The New York Musical Festival presents a new show about a prison transport to Australia.

Jordon Bolden and Caitlin Cohn (center) star in Laura and Linda Good's LadyShip, directed by Samantha Saltzman, for the New York Musical Festival at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Russ Rowland)

Australians have always been a lot more honest about the origins of the European population of their country: Sydney was a penal colony, meant to put as much ocean as possible between England and its least desirable citizens. North America was similarly used as a repository for the poor (see Nancy Isenberg's White Trash), but much of that history has been overshadowed by the mythology of bourgeois patriots in powdered wigs.

So it's admirable (but not exactly revolutionary) that sisters Laura and Linda Good spotlight the lives of the founding mothers of Australia (women prisoners) in their new musical LadyShip. It's about Irish sisters Mary (Caitlin Cohn) and Alice Reed (composer Linda Good stepped into this role at the performance I attended, which was presented as a concert due to the illness of leading lady Maddie Shea Baldwin).

Convicted of theft on trumped-up charges, they are sentenced to seven years in Australia (with the British government hoping that they will choose to remain and populate the new continent once that term is up). LadyShip depicts their harrowing journey across the world in a wooden boat circa 1789 (Larry Kirwan and Thomas Keneally's Transport tells a similar story, albeit several decades later).

Social commentary songs like "The System" and "Only the Strong Survive" have a dark Brechtian quality about them: Angry, percussive piano underscores acidly critical lyrics. Ladyship is at its best in these moments.

The Goods go bad when they traffic in treacly feminist clichés: The Reeds sing a duet of sisterly solidarity featuring the repeated phrase "Stronger Together," which arrives onstage like a refugee from 2016. The anthem of defiance, "I'm Done," has the entire female cast repeat the title in refrain, at one point near-rhyming it with the word "succumb" so that its sound likely they're making a bizarre declaration of witlessness.

Thankfully, Ladyship makes it safely to port through steady performances: Cohn is hugely sympathetic as Mary, Noelle Hogan wins our affection as Kitty (a knockoff Cosette from Les Misérables), and Lisa Karlin keeps us laughing as the resourceful Abigail, the only character we are certain will come out on top Down Under. There's definite potential for a sequel, but after two hours of LadyShip, I was more than ready to disembark.