by Carole Di Tosti
A dynamic, original and thrilling musical which is part of the New York Musical Festival 2019 season is Ladyship concisely directed by Samantha Saltzman with equally fine music direction by Simone Allen and choreography by Sara Brians.
With an intriguing book and exceptional, gorgeous music and lyrics by Laura Good and Linda Good (twin sisters of the rock/pop/alternative band The Twigs) Ladyship is based in historical fact. The musical chronicles the first journey of 200 convict women in 1789 sent out for the express purpose of “breeding” and “taming” the male convicts sent out on a prior ship in 1788 to colonize current day Australia. British authorities discovered that the male convicts were ungovernable and warred with the indigenous population. The Transportation Act decreed that female convicts as their punishment should be sent to the colony. Through their guidance and industry the women would increase the population and prod the men to succeed in establishing the first settlement.
The Goods create characters and situations which are readily believable and also hint at the presumptions and stereotypes among men and women which reflect history, yet have incredible currency. The actors selected for the roles are spot on and their authenticity and lyrical, powerful voices evoke the setting, the misery and the hope that each of the individuals from the women to the ship’s representative crew and captain experience.
The musical opens with Irish sisters Alice Reed (Maddie Shea Baldwin) and Mary Reed (Caitlin Cohn) along with orphan Kitty MacDougal (Noelle Hogan) Agibail Gainsborough (Lisa Karlin) and Lady Jane Sharp (Jennifer Blood), all of whom are harshly judged and sentenced to the penal colony for pilfering and in the case of Lady Sharp for non-payment of her dead husband’s debts. In the songs “The System,” “The Bloody Code,” “A Way Out” and “Seven Years,” the women and ensemble sing of their miserable plight which they cannot escape unless they commit suicide. To survive they must endure months on a ship with barely enough food and water to get to the next day. And if they make it through noxious conditions of the voyage, when they land, they must marry, have children and succeed at establishing the new colony as their only choice until their sentence is fulfilled.
This dire situation is portrayed with a sorrowful reality and undergirds timeless themes about inhumanity and corruption of government systems, institutional and economic injustice, wealth vs. impoverishment, oppression vs. subservience, endurance and hope despite terrible odds. Regardless of class or education, without money and the sustained ability to retain a livelihood whether through marriage or working, women then had little autonomy or opportunity. The Goods draw parallels between the past and the present in the lyrics of the songs which remain timely. Indeed, though women have made vast strides, they still predominately depend upon a paternalistic system with men “over them,” to make their way in the world.
Nevertheless, there is hope. As Kitty (the sweet voiced Noelle Hogan) sings from the lowest depths of the ship “So Many Stars,” we are reminded in the darkness of misery there is a hope, light and the promise of life.
As they continue on their voyage during the long months, the women encourage and rely on each other to endure (“All We Have Left,” “Only the Strong Survive”). They face obstacles with the crew (“Everything Has a Price”) and even fall in love (“Ready to Begin” and “I Need an Anchor”). The arc of development rises toward a pinnacle where the women despite a tragic event believe that they are going to have a better life than the one they left behind in London (“Dig Deep”). They disembark with faith that they will succeed.
The acting is uniformly excellent. The duets were superbly directed, acted, sung. Special kudos goes to Jordon Bolden and Caitlin Cohn (“Ready to Begin”) Quentin Oliver Lee and Jennifer Blood (“I Need an Anchor”) Maddie Shea Baldwin and Caitlin Cohn (“No Matter Where We’re Bound”). Maddie Shea Baldwin pulls out all the stops with “I’ll Find a Way.” Justin R. G. Holcomb is crusty in “Women are Wicked.” And Trevor St. John-Gilbert is the rogue who gets what he deserves!
A final encomium goes to the design team and all the creatives.
Ladyship should seek additional venues. It deserves more than a five performance run which unfortunately concluded on 14 July in its final production at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. I loved it!
For more information on NYMF go to http://www.nymf.org/