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A CurtainUp Review

"I Stole Some Butter To Put On My Bread
a Crime Against God, King And Parliament
no Fancy Lawyer To Defend My Case
so I Was Sentenced At Mayo Assizes
seven Long Years Cruel Servitude -
in Botany Bay Australia"

— Bride, the first of Transport's four female characters relating how she came to be on the Australian bound female convict ship Whisper in the opening song, "Bas In Erin."
(L to R): Emily Skeggs, Terry Donnelly, Pearl Rhein, and Jessica Grové(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
If Transport were mounted on a larger stage or as a movie it would allow for a larger cast and a more complex set. Yet, despite its handkerchief sized set with its cumbersome on stage column, I can't think of a better launching pad for Thomas Keneally's fact-based story than the Irish Repertory Theatre in Chelsea. This invaluable little source for all things Irish has inventively and memorably staged early works by Irish Playwrights like Eugene O'Neill (The Hairy Ape and Emperor Jones ). They've revisited real events like Sir Roger Casement's trial for treason (Prisoner of the Crown ) and the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries ( Eclipsed).

Many years before the unwed Irish mothers portrayed in Eclipsed, were forced to give up their babies and work as indentured servants in the church run laundries, thousands of poor Irish women were convicted for minor crimes and transported to Australia as a way to get rid of undesirables and end the imbalance of male to female population in Australia. (The British also transported plenty of similarly unjustly convicted Irish men, as well as their own countrymen and women).

While Eclipsed and Prisoner of the Crown were straight plays, Transport is a musical, a genre that's often been a winner for this company. Given the size of the venue and to keep this epic story at a reasonable length, it's a chamber piece with just eight characters.
The focus is on four women as representatives of the thousands who were part of that forced exodus. The epic story of their voyage from the Cobh of Cork to Sydney brings together a triumvirate of talents.

For the book we have Thomas Keneally, the author of many fact based novels, the most famous being Schindler's List. Transport actually has its origins in The Great Shame, his 1998 book about both political prisoners and petty criminals deported to Australia from Ireland. His focus on the women is especially meaningful since his own family originally hailed from County Cork and his wife's family tree includes one of those transported women, her Great grandmother,

Kenealy found an ideal musical partner in Larry Kirwan, the leader of the Irish-American rock group Black 47 and as the creator of Hard Times, a downtown musical about songwriter Stephen Foster. The songs he's written for Transport combine the edginess he's known for with a tinkly Irish lilt. When the unseen 5-member band pulsates with the more hard-driven rhythms they tend to drown out the lyrics, but this happens only occasionally. Loud or soft, each song moves the story forward forward organically, and given that we have 19 songs (plus one reprise) in less than 2 hours, this is essentially a sung-through musical.

Having the songs pretty much carry the story brings us to the show's director and designer, Tony Walton. According to a 2012 interview with Larry Kirwan by Gwen Orel in New York Irish Arts, when Walton came aboard he helped Keneally to streamline his script so that the characters could evolve through the music. Thus, the opening number "Bas in Erin" introduces us to the four women each detailing what landed them on the Whisper. All bring passion and fine voices to their parts.

First up is Bride Riordan (Pearl Rhein) whose husband succumbed to Typhus and who was sentenced to 7-years for stealing some butter for her bread. A bit younger and less quietly contained is Kate O'Hara, a fiery rebel. She was convicted for sheltering her equally rebellious brothers, one of whom was hanged and one who got away to America where she hopes one day to find him. Next up is Polly Cantwell (Emily Skeggs), the only Protestant, who became "a stranger in her own country" when she fell in love with a Catholic whose baby she grasps desperately to her breast. Maggie Carroll (Terry Donnelly), the foursome's oldest member, is an illiterate dairy maid whose incarceration before being picked for deportations have resulted in her having visions, all of which involve foreseeing future catastrophies.

Wearing his hat as the show's designer, Walton has created a facsimile of a large sailing vessel. The master of the ship and the doctor responsible for the health of its inhabitants, are often positioned on the top deck. Having them face each other with the stage between them smartly establishes the face-off between Captain Winton (Mark Coffin convincingly tough as steel) and the more sympathetic Surgeon Delamare (Edward Watts equally persuasive as the more sympathetic Doctor.

This being a musical entertainment, however, Coffin's Captain is not a villain à la Captain Queeg of Caine Mutiny or Wolf Larsen from The Sea Wolf and Delamare, himself something of an outsider as the youngest son of a wealthy Protestant family, does double duty as the women's protector but as well the show's s romantic interest. His "The Price of Love" and "I Will Find You" are musical highlights.

The two other male characters are Hennessy (Patrick Cummings) a pragmatic Irishman who's joined the British Army and Father Manion (Sean Gormley), a politically incorrect Irish priest. The priest and the more than a little mad Maggie provide Mr. Keneally with a chance to touch on the soul shattering effect of imprisonment and cruelty on the human spirit.

Mr. Walton's set is efficient but the set-up of the steerage area that requires the women to often lie face down is rather awkward. Thank heavens choreographer Barry McNabb frequently frees them from their confining quarters to join in some lively Irish dances.

This little show saves its biggest scene for the second act when a devastating storm rocks the ship. Thanks to Richard Pilbrow and Michael Gottlieb's lighting, Carl Casella's stunning sound design and the rousing "The Roaring Forties" sung by the Women, Hennesy and Winton, that storm scene is a riveting amalgam of sight and sound. It's also the show's dramatic high point.

Ultimately, Transport is a story that leaves you wishing it were pure fiction rather than based on fact. But since it did happen, bravo for all the people who merged their talents to turn this slice of history into a small musical with a big heart .

Book by Thomas Keneally
Music and lyrics by Larry Kirwan
Direction and set design by Tony Walton
Choreography by Barry McNabb
Musical Direction & arrangements by John Bell
Cast: Mark Coffin (Captain Winton), Patrick Cummings (Hennessy), Terry Donnelly (Maggie Carroll), Sean Gormley (Father Manion), Jessica Grove (Kate O'Hara), Pearl Rhein (Bride Riordan), Emily Skegg (Polly Cantwell) and Edward Watts (Surgeon Delamare).
Costume design by Linda Fisher
Lighting design by Richard Pilbrow & Michael Gottlieb
Projections: Yana Biryukova
Hair and Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Dialet Coach: Stephen Gabis
Properties: Deirdre Brennan
Stage Manager: Christine Lemme
Orchestra: Conductor John Bell-piano; Stew Cutler-guitar; Suzy Perelman-ViolinThomas Hamlin-Drums; Jeremy Clayton-flute/whistles; Geraldine Anello-music assistant Running Time: 1 hour and 45 Minutes, Including One Intermission
Irish Repertory Theatre 132 West 22nd Street  212-727-2737
From 2/07/14; opening 2/16/14; closing 4/06/14
Wednesdays at 3pm and 8pm; Thursdays at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 3pm.Tickets $55 -$65.
Musical Numbers
Act One
Bas in Erin/Brie, Kaate, Maggie, Polly, Winton
  • To Hell or to Australia/Hennessy
  • Lost to me Now/Kate
  • All the Years I loved You/Manion
  • Se Do Bheatha, A Mhuire/ Bride, Maggie, Kate
  • A Reason to Go On/Delamare
  • No One Will Weep/Maggie
  • Never See Ireland Again/Hennessy, Women
  • God Be Praised for Living/Women
  • Dreams of New York/Women
  • A Stranger in My Own Country/Polly
  • Raging Heart/Kate, Bride
  • Act Two
    • Secret Dreams/Bride, Maggie, Polly
    • Hotter Here Beside Me/Bride
    • The Price of Love/Delamare
    • The Roaring Forties/Women, Hennessy, Winton
    • Se Do Bheatha, A Mhuire/Women, Manion
    • Lost to Me Now (reprise)/Hennessy, Maggie, Polly, Bride
    • I will Find You/Bride, Delamare
    • Australia/Company
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