By: Paulanne Simmons
July 15, 2019: Between 1787 and 1686 the British government sent convicted women to New South Wales, the penal colony that was to become Australia. Although the women ranged in age from children to the elderly, the majority were in their twenties or thirties. Most had been convicted of miner offences such as petty theft, but in New Wales, many became prostitutes because that was the only way they could support themselves. Drawing on this history, twin sisters Laura and Linda Good have created a musical, Ladyship, making its premiere under the direction of Samantha Saltzman at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
The musical imagines what might have befallen a group of women prisoners aboard a ship bound for New Wales. The premise is fascinating, the execution less so.
The biggest problem this musical must overcome is the simple fact that the female characters have no real agency. As a result, they spend much of their time talking and singing about the deplorable conditions aboard the ship, where they are subjected to forced labor, filthy living conditions and slow starvation.
Sixteen-year-old Mary Reed (Caitlin Cohn) falls in love with Finn (Jordon Bolden), a bi-racial seaman, and ends up pregnant. Her sister, Alice (Maddie Shea Baldwin), maintains her virtue while being stalked by Lieutenant Adams (Trevor St. John-Gilbert), who refuses to be reigned in by his uncle, Captain Adams (Quentin Oliver Lee). The street-smart Abigail Gainsborough (Lisa Karlin) encourages the other women to use sex as a method of financial advancement. Lady Jane Sharpe (Jennifer Blood), whose husband gambled away her inheritance, takes the 11-year-old Scottish orphan, Kitty MacDougal (Noelle Hogan), under her wing. These are hardly feats of defiance.
It’s certainly an act of hubris for any reviewer to attempt rewriting another’s work. But this reviewer would have appreciated something more dramatic happening: a mutiny, an escape, a murder.
Curiously, although Ladyship takes place on a ship, the Goods take little advantage of this setting. We see no evidence of the daily chores performed by the seamen or the ways they entertained themselves during tedious voyages. Surely one of the sailors might have played an instrument and enjoyed singing sea shanties. The traditional ways seamen passed their time seem tailor-made for a musical but are barely evident in Ladyship.
On the other hand, much of the alternative pop score is excellent, although there are a few too may inspiring ballads. And the actors do their best to breathe life into generic characters.
Ladyship tries to be about empowered women. But in the end, this musical is much more about powerless women who endure.
Ladyship ran from July 10 through July 14 at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Center, 480 W 42nd St.
Photography: Russ Rowland