Sting’s songs are haunting and lyrical, the creative team is made up of Broadway royalty, the acting helps lend a sense of authenticity to this heartfelt tale based on the struggles of the shipbuilding community where the rock star grew up in Northern England. So why did “The Last Ship” ultimately feel to me so much like an overlong commercial for beer or aftershave lotion — all manly fellowship and honest, muscular effort, without much purpose except to work up a sweat?
The opening scenes promise much more than that.
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Gideon (Michael Esper) is returning to Wallsend after 15 years of self exile to attend a funeral.
“Someone close?” a fellow sailor asks on the ship bringing him to port.
“No,” Gideon replies. “Just me dad.”
In the song “All This Time,” Gideon explains why he went away.
So I ask myself why the hell would I stay?
Just churches and pubs where ye drink or ye pray, and the sky’s still the same old battleship grey,
if only the pubs stayed open all day
Once back in town, he goes first to the church, to confession with the local priest, Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), who reminds him of the promise he made to his girlfriend Meg to return for her.
GIDEON: Aye, a promise I broke.
FATHER O’BRIEN: Or that you haven’t kept yet.
He then goes to find Meg (Rachel Tucker) at the Ship at the Hole Pub. There, the laid-off workers from the closed shipyard, led by former foreman Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), have just rejected a businessman’s offer of working at his scrap yard.
“You can keep your blinders on as the world leaves you behind,” the businessman says, “or you can face reality and apply for a new job with me.” They choose the former.
We’ve seen this set-up before in musicals, gritty, atmospheric tales of plucky British workers challenged by an industry in crisis – in Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, Kinky Boots.
But while the others set sail, this two-masted ship stays waterlogged.
In one of the two plots, Father O’Brien, who has just discovered he is dying, gives the town a mission – build one last ship, and sail it “out into the wide world.” In the other plot, Gideon discovers that Meg is now in a couple with another man, and that Meg has a 15-year-old son – Gideon’s!
Now, the book, by John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal, If/Then), reportedly borrows from two separate real-life incidents — involving Scottish shipbuilders who staged a “work-in” in the 1970s, and more recently by a Polish priest who illicitly funded unemployed workers to assemble a ship that was to sail around the world.
So, shouldn’t this be as inspiring on stage as it was in real life? But it isn’t. Perhaps this is in part because we do not see:
- much point in their building the boat
- their overcoming many obstacles to do so
- their spending much time in the actual construction – a couple of shifting around of two-by-fours, some welders emitting orange sparks, and lots of synchronized stomping and jaunty thrusts in the air (giving me a momentary urge to shout out “Stop your prancing and build the boat already!”)
- the boat
David Zinn’s industrial-looking set suggests the immense size and power of a shipyard, but we never actually see a boat. The design team only suggests it, climaxing with one special effect at the end.
The ship-building must compete with the love triangle, which offers opportunity for some lovely ballads – oddly enough, most notably “What Say You, Meg” by Gideon’s rival, Arthur (Aaron Lazar, last seen on Broadway as the rival in A Little Night Music!)
Here is a video of the song as sung by Sting
and a snippet of the song sung by Lazar in the Chicago production
Some have suggested that it was Sting’s modesty that prevented him from making this story more obviously autobiographical, turning Gideon into a rock star returning to his blue collar hometown. That might not have worked, but the current Gideon seems to have done very little in the 15 years of his absence except…be absent. There’s none of Sting’s charisma built into the character; you almost wonder why Meg, having found a more mature, loving partner and lovely balladeer in Arthur, would feel conflicted after meeting the man who abandoned her as a teenager. Esper, who was terrific on Broadway in both American Idiot and in The Lyons, makes the most of Gideon and does it in fine voice.
Indeed, the cast of almost two dozen is full of first-rate performers. Applegate is a delight as Father O’Brien, the Irish-born unorthodox (foul-mouthed), caring and beloved priest of the town, even though my tolerance for twinkle-eyed Irish priests with irreverent wisdom is not what it used to be.
Standouts include four performers making their Broadway debuts:
Jimmy Nail, a well-known singer-songwriter in Europe who came out of retirement to help Sting with the songs, is channeling his father, who was a foreman in a Newcastle shipyard. Rachel Tucker is silver-voiced and persuasive as a Meg who has hardened on the outside, but remains softly romantic underneath it all.
Collin Kelly-Sordelet plays Gideon as a young man, and also the son Gideon didn’t know he had. He is the 19-year-old son of stage fight director Rick Sordelet, and exhibits a grace on stage that will serve him well.
Shawna M. Hamic as the feisty barkeep Beatrice Dees who leads the Act II opener, “Mrs. Dee’s Rant” with its much-needed humor:
When I was a maiden truly,
Such dreams would fill my head
I thought I’d marry a goodly man, to keep me warm in bed.
A goodly man, a shapely man,
of noble heart and true, instead I married a shipyard man and the rent’s always overdue.
If to an untrained ear, too much of the music seems much the same, I’ll wager that theatergoers who did not know of Sting before might be moved to explore his music further; for his fans, the lilting, sweet-sad, folk-tinged music might be enough to satisfy.
I suspect “The Last Ship” will be a future Encores! concert, treated like rediscovered sunken treasure.
The Last Ship
At the Neil Simon Theater
Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey; Music by Sting; Lyrics by Sting; Associate Music Director: Dan Lipton; Musical Director: Rob Mathes
Directed by Joe Mantello, choreographed by Steven Hoggett
Cast: Michael Esper, Rachel Tucker, Jimmy Nail, Fred Applegate, Aaron Lazar, Sally Ann Triplett, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, Eric Anderson, Ethan Applegate, Craig Bennett, Dawn Cantwell, Jeremy Davis, Bradley Dean, Alyssa DiPalma, Colby Foytik, David Michael Garry, Timothy Gulan, Shawna M. Hamic, Rich Hebert, Leah Hocking, Todd A. Horman, Sarah Hunt, Jamie Jackson, Sean Jenness, Drew McVety, Johnny Newcomb, Matthew Stocke, Cullen Titmus, Jeremy Woodard.
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes including intermission.
Tickets: $55 to $147. Lottery: $30.