Ladyship, the new show by twins Laura Good and Linda Good, exemplifies how difficult it is to write a good musical. There is so much here to like: some beautiful songs, an original story, and a clear desire to write something that matters.
The story of young women sent from London to Australia for seven years in the late 18th century as penalty for their (often small) crimes, Ladyship largely takes place during the long, long journey. The two main characters are the teen aged sisters Alice and Mary, who stole because they were hungry. Also on the ship are Lady Jane, brought low after her husband went through her money; Kitty, painfully young, without family, and innocent of the crime for which she was sentenced; the street-smart Abigail; and Mrs. Pickering, heartbroken because she didn't even get to say goodbye to her children. The four men we see on board are the captain, who is kind but turns away from many injustices; Finn, a sweet, mixed-race sailor; Zeke Cropper, a nasty, misogynistic drunk; and Lieutenant Adams, who hopes to have sex with a different woman each night.
This story is a lot to take on, and it is important that the show have a clear through-line. Is it about the injustice of the women's punishment? Yes, but. Is it about the relationship of the sisters? Yes, but. Is it about the generally horrible treatment of women in the 18th century? Yes, but. Is it about the rottenness of the rich and men, and particularly rich men? Yes, but. Is it about women banding together to help each other? Yes, but. Is it about being brave and making the best of whatever life hands you? Yes, but.
There's nothing wrong with a show taking on a variety of issues and story lines, but they have to mesh effectively, and in Ladyship, they don't. The Goods use the "making the best of what life hands you" theme to avoid dealing with the true reality of the other topics. For example, not a single female character is raped. On one hand, that's fine with me; I was glad not to have to go through that scene. On the other hand, that's a cop out. Many of the women would have been raped. A lot. Nor do any of the women die. In fact, the show is so unwilling to depict reality that it has Kitty sing about the stars she can see through a grill from the orlop deck. The orlop deck is below the waterline! There are no grills there, no stars, no light. The Goods don't want to face that level of darkness.
Does it make sense to try to address difficult topics when you're not willing to go to difficult places? The best serious musicals, e.g., Sweeney Todd; Caroline, or Change, are actually painful to watch. The pain is mitigated by the art, but the pain is also real. By avoiding that pain, Ladyship becomes dishonest.
Also, on a more micro level, the Goods use half rhymes, sort of rhymes, not-even-close rhymes. Away does not rhyme with safe, no matter how many times they are repeated. The songs thereby lose the clarity that comes from true rhymes. Also, many of the songs end lamely, sort of petering out.
The Goods have much to be grateful for in this NYMF production of Ladyship. The cast is strong, with some gorgeous voices: Maddie Shea Baldwin, Jennifer Blood, Jordon Bolden, Caitlin Cohn, Noelle Hogan, Justin R.G. Holcomb, Lisa Karlin, Brandi Knox, Quentin Oliver Lee, and Trevor St. John-Gilbert. The lighting design (Sam Gordon) is clear, clean, and lovely. The scenery (David Goldstein), costumes (Whitney Locher) and sound (Patrick Calhoun) are all effective.
I hope that the Goods continue to write musicals (perhaps with an experienced book writer who can provide some perspective and theatre-savvy). There is enough that is good in Ladyship to want to see more of their work.
(fifth row, center)