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A CurtainUp Review
The Last Ship
By Elyse Sommer
The return-to-your-roots, slightly autobiographical show actually began with "The Soul Cages" a 1990 album. Another album released as a sort of preview for The Big Ship was released last year. Sting watchers will therefore recognize a several of the songs (with some changed lyrics) in the now officially opened show. However, while some songs are already part of the recorded Sting songbook, this is not a jukebox musical, but that rare new arrival on the Great White Way not based on a movie, a book or a popular group or soloist's catalog. Instead it's a melodic, newfangled show with an old-fashioned, grand old book musical feel.
The score is quite a remove from rock and pop but his signature flair for downbeat, sophisticated lyrics and diverse musical styles is in place. In this case it's steeped in the folk sounds of the English coastal village in which The Last Ship is set. Shanties and foot stomping reels, waltzes and ballads to give plenty of solo, duet and ensemble singing. The orchestra includes pipes, flutes, whistles and fiddles and guitars.
Best of all, unlike so many Broadway musicals in which the voices are unnaturally amplified and the lyrics drowned out by the orchestra, this is the softest, silkiest sound I've heard in a big Broadway house in a long time. Every word is crystal clear. And Sting, more than many a seasoned musical theater practitioner, has managed to bring a fine conversational naturalness to his lyrics that allows for a fluid back and forth between spoken and sung words.
So far so good. But not everything's smooth sailing for this ship.
While the cast is strong, with voices that do full justice to some two dozen songs, the book is the weak link. The Last Ship, is like a growing list of musicals set in a working class community in which the industry supporting them has collapsed or moved elsewhere. However, neither of its award winning librettists, Brian Yorkey or John Logan, have found a fresh way to chronicle Sting's elegy to his father and the place with believable and focused action, and a satisfying finale. That said the book is a sincere, workmanlike and at times touching. . But the portrait of the Wallsend ship building town of Sting's youth is rather dour and way too rambling. It's missing the fun and humor tinged with the serious social undercurrents of The Full Monty, the intense strife of a workers' strike plus moving a boot factory's retooling itself for a campy new market in Kinky Boots.
The several plot strands include a romantic triangle (alas one that's trite and predictable), but there's no real romantic hero here. Gideon, the main character is a stand-in for Sting, or rather Sting when his name was still Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner Thomas Sumner. But , is not especially well developed but, despite a compelling beautifully vocalized performance by Michael Esper, is not especially well developed.
Gideon is thirty-year old man who returns to Wallsend after a fifteen year absence to bury his father and claim Meg, the sweetheart he left behind. That long delayed return, without so much as a postcard and the way those fifteen years have still left him fairly aimless which makes his renewed courtship pretty unrealistic. But then the other main story line — the community's plan to occupy the shipbuilding yard and build one last ship (conveniently hatched to coincide with Gideon's return) is even more unrealistic. It doesn't help that it's actualized at a breakneck speed. To really work, this would need more of a romantic fantasy staging than this more Brechtian approach.
The trite romantic story line and the credibility leaks in this ship notwithstanding, there is much to make boarding it worthwhile. Of course, first and foremost is the music. There's also the fine cast with quite a few performances good enough for The Last Ship to be represented at next year's awards ceremonies.
Rachel Tucker's Meg is as fiery as her red hair. Aaron Lazar is terrific as the other and better of the two men competing for her love. I suppose you could call him a villain since he threw in his lot with the scrap iron magnates taking over the shipyard industry. However, his working for the people taking over the dying shipbuilding business is more sensible than mean-spirited. He simply opted for what we now call job retraining rather than cling to a hopeless cause. Interestingly it's also Lazar's Arthur and not Gideon who gets to sing the show's most memorable romantic ballad "What Say You, Meg?"
Collin Kelly-Sordelet makes a winning Broadway debut as Meg's son Tom (in a sly hint at revelations to come, the young actor doubles briefly as young Gideon). He also moves and sings impressively, as illustrated in "The Night the Pugilist," a duet with Esper.
Though Sting has declared himself to be an agnostic, the show's most endearing character is the town's priest, Father O'Brien as played by Fred Applegate. A scene in which he hears Gideon's first confession in years, brings a much needed and too rare touch of humor.
Other standouts are Jimmy Nail, himself a successful singer and songwriter, as Jackie White the shipbuilders' leader and Sally Ann Triplett as Peggy White.
Joe Mantello's direction supports the communal spirit of the world depicted, but he would have been well advised to put the show on a diet, especially the second act. His designers have created an easy to navigate environment that's compatible with the maritime locale. The two-tier set by David Zinn, who also designed the aptly hued costumes, is enhanced by Christopher Akerlind's dynamic lighting. The stylized movement choreography that's become Stephen Hoggett's hallmark (Black Watch and Once) is ideally suited to this down-to-earth ensemble.
In his round of show promoting interviews, Sting has repeatedly mentioned his long-time love of the musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein. While The Last Ship, falls short of being a new Carousel (his favorite R&H show), Sting's first Broadway outing nevertheless succeeds in following their credo that a musical's songs must not only be melodic but move the the narrative forward.