By William Wolf

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A poignant chapter in Irish history has given birth to an impressive new musical that recalls the phenomenon of Irish women convicted of minor crimes being transported by ship from Cobh of Cork to Sydney, Australia in the 1830s and 40s to propagate with criminals in the penal colonies. History has hit close to home. One of the women among the 4000 subjected to that fate was the great grandmother of the show’s book-writer Thomas Keneally’s wife Judy. Her relative was deported to Australia when she was 20 yearS old for stealing a bolt of cloth.

Keneally has collaborated with Larry Kirwan, provider of the music and lyrics, and the accomplished Tony Walton has directed and designed the production, with choreography by Barry McNabb and musical direction and arrangements by John Bell. The resulting show is being presented by the distinguished Irish Repertory Theatre in association with 1407 Productions. The time and place is 1838 aboard the Whisper, a British female convict transport ship, with four women in the cast representing their sister victims being deported.

The appropriate score has an Irish lilt and stirring rhythm that gradually grabs one, thanks in great measure to the singing by the excellent cast—no surprise to those familiar with the quality of Irish Repertory Theatre productions—and the skillful five piece orchestra conducted by Bell, who is also the pianist.

Cast members Pearl Rhein, Jessica Grové, Emily Skeggs and Terry Donnelly bring a combination of pathos and feistiness to their respective characters whether speaking or singing, whether individually or a chorus. The plot includes two men aboard, surgeon Delamare (Edward Watts) and Hennessy (Patrick Cummings), falling in love with two of the transported women. There is also a priest, Father Manion (Sean Gormley), and another key character is the ship’s captain, Winton (Mark Coffin), who looks down upon the woman as baggage and whores, but ultimately comes around to agreeing to help Delamare get permission to marry the skeptical but hopeful Bride Riordan, played fetchingly by Rhein. Delamare and Bride duet in one of the musical’s most striking songs, ”I Will Find You.”

The emotional thrust of the show comes from heartfelt depiction of the tragedy of woman being torn from their surroundings and sent off to an unknown environment, with tragedies occurring en route. The score reflects the circumstances and the defiant reactions. There are such numbers as “A Reason to Go On,” “No One Will Weep,” “Never See Ireland Again,” “God be Praised for Living,” “A Stranger in My Own Country,” “Raging Heart,” “Secret Dreams,” “The Price of Love” and “Lost to Me Now”—the titles themselves indicating the broad range of emotions. By the time the show arrives with the finale, the company singing “Australia,” there is the satisfaction of our having been treated to an original and moving dip into a part of history that should be remembered in honor of the women who lived it.

Walton has provided a simple but workable set design suggesting a ship. In addition to pianist/ conductor/ arranger Bell, the orchestra includes Stew Cutler, guitar; Suzy Perelman, violin; Thomas Hamlin, drums; Jeremy Clayton, flute and whistles, with Geraldine Anello credited as music assistant. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212- 727-2737


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