You would think a production that melded the considerable talents of Thomas Keneally, the author of Schindler’s List, Larry Kirwan, the cofounder of the terrific Irish rock group Black 47, and legendary production designer-turned-director Tony Walton (who is a Grammy shy of an EGOT) would be more than a load of blarney. Alas, the musical Transport, running through April 6 at Off Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theatre, is a deeply underimagined bid to be the Les Miz of the Potato Famine years. Why, it even begins with a young woman singing about her unfair arrest for stealing butter for bread (Jeannie Valjean, perhaps?), as a small turntable swirls behind her. But in this case, to paraphrase Forbidden Broadway, at the end of the play you’ll feel another year older.
It’s easy to see how librettist Keneally envisioned a theatrical tale in a family story that dates back to his great-grandmother: A group of young women convicted of various crimes are taken aboard a prison ship heading from the Cobh of Cork to Sydney, as legend has it, to correct a ”gender imbalance” in burgeoning Australia. The ship includes only a handful of men, including a kindly doctor (Edward Watts, possessing a most pleasing baritone) and a priest (Sean Gormley), to attend to their needs. Along the way, like most at-sea journeys, there will be tears, romance, and unforeseen weather to knock the crew for a loop — and even right off the boat in one case. (A note on Walton’s staging in the Irish Rep’s ungainly, reverse-L shaped space: This production virtually ignores the sightlines of the poor patrons seated to the left of the stage.)
Unfortunately, the backstories of the women are drawn paper-thin. They take turns sharing them through (rather generic) song and dance the occasional jig, but they mostly lie on the ship waiting for their next big moment. The slackly conceived musical stifles the talents of its best singers (Watts and the Ellen Page-like Emily Skeggs, especially). But even when they get their shot, as the former does in the 11 o’clock power ballad ”The Price of Love” (every bit as cornball as it sounds, by the way), it does little to illuminate Transport’s weak narrative. C-