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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Emily Skeggs, Pearl Rhein, Terry Donnelly, and Jessica Grové
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Let's face facts: It's probably impossible for anyone to write a musical that's as entertaining as it is educational when the subject is lower-class Irish women being shipped off to Botany Bay, Australia, in the early 1800s to build the almost-country's population with the prisoners who'd also been sent there. So Transport, Thomas Keneally and Larry Kirwan's new musical about exactly that at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is—on paper, at least—running several lengths behind before anyone in it ever speaks or sings a word. The good news is that, even given that pedigree, the show is considerably better than you may expect.

For all its female-empowerment leanings, perhaps unavoidable in this post-Wicked age, it focuses enough on the common plight of its four central characters to keep you engaged even if it doesn't develop the individuals as much as you wish it would. But headstrong Bride (Pearl Rhein), rebellious Kate (Jessica Grové), young mother Polly (Emily Skeggs), and prophetic Maggie (Terry Donnelly) together paint a picture of temporal horror outlined with a stirring emotional resilience. Whether stumbling through their memories, mired in their present, or even indulging in dreams of happier times to hopefully come, this quartet works tirelessly, and believably, to make the most of their bad (if not the worst) situation.

This manifests itself mostly in the score. Kirwan's songs blend styles ranging from light Gilbert-and-Sullivan homages to folk (Barry McNabb has choreographed a few simple community-minded dances), with occasional nods to more familiar Broadway ballads, all filtered through a solid Irish sensibility and string-heavy orchestrations (the work of Kirwan, Josh Clayton, and musical director and arranger John Bell) that give them a one-of-a-kind and frequently unplaceable sound. If the numbers are not all equally dynamic—nothing else quite reaches the dramatic heights of the relentless opening sequence, reminiscent of that of the curtain-raiser to Maury Yeston's Titanic, in which the women and their baggage (more figurative than literal) are loaded onto the ship—they fix for us the flood of confused feelings that fuel the months-long ocean voyage the show covers.

Keneally's book is somewhat less successful, settling for traditional tropes and broad strokes instead of the unique craftings that constitute Kirwan's contributions. Each woman embodies one distinct character trait, and has a few moments of lucidity that stop short of filling out a cohesive book. It's overly obvious, for example, that Kate will plan a take-over and that Polly's newborn baby will face major difficulties—in most cases, you're just waiting for these events to occur, and they're hard-pressed to ever take you by surprise.

Patrick Cummings, Mark Coffin, and Edward Watts
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The women in shows of this nature are always symbols of much larger stories, but ought to be compelling on their own terms. The ones here rarely are, and are usually overshadowed by the more sharply drawn men around them—bilious Captain Winton (Mark Coffin), reserved Father Manion (Sean Gormley), compassionate Surgeon Delamare (Edward Watts), and the decisive soldier Hennessy (Patrick Cummings)—all of whom connect with the troubles of the broader world away from the ship's decks without sacrificing their individuality. These incidental conversations about joint troubles with the Crown or fleeting mentions of dark pasts better left buried suggest plenty of interesting personalities left underexplored.

At least the performers deliver, with Grové and Cummings the standouts, her lilting soprano and interior fire forever warring against each other, and Hennessy's fierce and incisive notes getting full play in his go-for-broke portrayal. But everyone is start-to-finish terrific, with Coffin's restrained bluster and Donnelly's magnetic weirdness also noteworthy; only Watts, who speaks well and sings superbly but pushes too far the leading-man aspects of what should be a subtler part, now and then seems miscast.

Tony Walton, who has both directed and designed the production, has made exquisite use of the Irish Rep's difficult stage layout and transformed it, with the help of lighting designers Richard Pilbrow and Michael Gottlieb, into an anything-is-possible playing space that shifts from cargo-bay depression to above-decks liberty at a moment's notice. This is a place, they all apparently want to remind us, where anything can happen, where one poor girl is as likely to fall in love with the ship's doctor as another is to fall overboard, and where it just might be possible to find eternal happiness stranded on what was, at the time, a penal colony.

Is that true? Who knows. The rules of musical theatre don't always apply easily, if at all, to those of the real world, and Transport's listing between those extremes is enough to make you seasick well before you arrive at the Land Down Under. No, you never feel either the spirit-clenching dread of what the women must have actually endured or the exhilaration that naturally accompanies the best theatrical treatments of any story. But Keneally and especially Kirwan have done more than most, and more than was strictly needed, in finding a satisfying, and satisfyingly unusual, middle ground.

Through April 6
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets and performance schedule at