Pictured (L to R):  Emily Skeggs, Terry Donnelly, Pearl Rhein, and Jessica Grové.  Credit: Carol Rosegg

Pictured (L to R): Emily Skeggs, Terry Donnelly, Pearl Rhein, and Jessica Grové. Credit: Carol Rosegg

Transport at the Irish Rep is ambitious.  A convict ship full of Irish women in chains and curls and rage, departs Cork, headed for Botany Bay as the darkest days of the famine bear down on Ireland.  The story is epic. 

What’s more, a surprising triple-play of people came together to tell the tale, write the music, and move the action.  Novelist Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s List) did the book.  Larry Kirwan, who leads New York’s best known Celtic band, Black 47, did the music and lyrics.  Tony Walton, long known for his distinctive set and costume design before moving on to direct, brings all of that to Transport.

High expectations, to be sure, and there is much to admire.  First, a transatlantic crossing, in the Irish Rep’s dinghy.   They pull it off with swaying bodies and clever lighting.  They use every inch, even wrapping a ship’s bridge around the always inconvenient pillar downstage right.  I’ve been to many stage-stretching productions at the Irish Rep; this may be the stretchiest.

Transport is a musical that struggles with scale.  The themes are big — injustice, revolution, deportation, class warfare, sexual power and sexual dominance — pick two or three and you might have something.  Here the broad strokes overwhelm what might have been one, even two, solid stories.

The music is authentic and evocative, if not rich.  It is repetitive in the way of folk music. When it moves away from authenticity and tries for commercial appeal, it seems to overreach.  The vocals are challenging, and much of the sound is built on distinctive harmonies at the bottom of some interesting voices — a good thing as the lyrics are surprisingly pedestrian.  Some lyrics, the angry ones, are in Gaelic and that does lend an air of mystery.

Four women stand in for a ship full of convicts; four men for the ship’s company and a priest.  It is no wonder the characters come off a bit thin.

Jessica Grove’s Kate O’Hare, a revolutionary at home, who plots to take over the ship and head for New York, is a notable exception.  Terry Donnelly’s Maggie Carroll is the crone, a seer who offers up lots of white bones and dread.  Emily Skeggs’s Polly Cantwell, the lone Prod among the prisoners, reminds us that Ireland’s castoffs were not all Papists.  And Pearl Rhein gives us the widow Bride Riordan, who finds love with the ship’s surgeon as the promise of a fresh start in Austral-i-ay looms.

The captain (Mark Coffin) is smug and hateful. The priest (Sean Gormley) useless,   the “boyo” sailor (Patrick Cummings) is ‘hot’ if tangential, and the surgeon (Edward Watts) while gorgeous, gives us a Pinafore performance.

There’s a good deal of action — stomping and storming, a shot fired at power, and an artful flogging.  Everyone works very hard and you want to love it and them.  Transport ought to be a meal ,but it is a snack.

Transport – By Thomas Keneally (book) and Larry Kirwan (music and lyrics); directed by Tony Walton.

WITH: Mark Coffin (Captain Winton), Patrick Cummings (Hennessy), Terry Donnelly (Maggie Carroll), Sean Gormley (Father Manion), Jessica Grove (Kate O’Hare), Pearl Rhein (Bride Riordan), Emily Skeggs (Polly Cantwell), Edward Watts (Surgeon Delamare).

Choreographed by Barry McNabb, John Bell is the Music Director, Linda Fisher did the costumes, Richard Pilbrow did the lighting with Michael Gottlieb.  At The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, Manhattan through April 6th. Tickets are available at www.IrishRep.org or by calling the box office at 212 727-2737.  Running time is 90 minutes with one intermission.