Bank of America Theatre. Music and lyrics by Sting. Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Directed by Joe Mantello. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
It seems as though I’ve been hearing Sting sing tunes from The Last Ship, the new Broadway-bound musical he’s written with John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), for months now: at an event last fall announcing the show’s Chicago tryout; on a PBS special and on the Tony Awards broadcast; emanating from sidewalk planters outside my office on State Street. Coming from the pop star’s mouth and acoustic guitar, these songs struck me as gentle, somber—and frankly, kind of boring.
So color me very pleasantly surprised to find that The Last Ship is in fact a sinewy, driving show, clear-eyed even in its sentimentality, that’s in quite solid shape as of its Chicago opening night.
The plot, inspired by the erstwhile Gordon Sumner’s hometown in the north of England, centers on a community whose lifeblood is running out. Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper, plying a more grown-up version of his American Idiot angst) left Wallsend and his young love, Meg Dawson (the appealing Brit belter Rachel Tucker, making her American debut), 15 years ago to escape his inevitable induction into the shipbuilding industry that wore down his father, his father’s father, and most of the town’s male population for generations; instead of building ships, Gideon sets sail on them.
He returns upon his father’s death to find the shipyard’s been bought out and is to be turned into a salvage operation, and Meg has a devoted, responsible boyfriend, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), and a 15-year-old son, Tom, who looks an awful lot like himself (charming newcomer Collin Kelly-Sordelet plays both Tom and, in the prologue number “Island of Souls,” the young Gideon).
At the local pub, the shipyard workers, led by foreman Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), show resistance to the end of their era and the offer of employment by the new owners, as represented by Arthur, a former shipyard worker who’s gone from coveralls to tailored suits. Meg shows a similar resistance to Gideon, who promised he’d return for her and instead dropped off the radar for a decade and a half.
At the suggestion of the town’s wisely profane priest (a sparkling turn from Fred Applegate), the shipyard workers rally to take back their agency long enough to build one last, well, you know, which they’ll then take on a circumnavigating journey as a symbol of the dignity of creation. Gideon, despite his rejection of shipbuilding work all those years ago, joins in on the effort mainly to set himself up in opposition to Arthur, now he’s decided he’s still in love with Meg.
The men take on this task even as they question its worth, though eventually the simple completion of the ship becomes goal enough for them—though maybe not for us. Even if they achieve this moral victory, what have they changed for their town in the long term, I couldn’t help wondering?
The Last Ship doesn’t steer entirely clear of cliché—its setup evokes easy comparisons to everything from Kinky Boots (English son finds meaning in reluctantly helping family business facing layoffs) to Rent (imagine Arthur as a class-traitor analogue to Benny).
And yet it smartly undercuts other tropes, particularly in the boy-gets-girl-back arena, which gets resolved in an astute and sweet Act II duet between Gideon and Meg titled “It’s Not the Same Moon.” Steven Hoggett’s muscular choreography, with its stutter-step play on balance and imbalance in dynamic group numbers like “We’ve Got Now’t Else,” provides a lot of heft, and Joe Mantello’s direction keeps everything moving fluidly and, for the most part, honestly.
As for the music itself, a lot of it does sound like Sting with lusher orchestrations—and Esper and Nail both can sound remarkably like they’re doing smoky-voiced impressions of the composer himself. And there’s one unadvertised dip into the catalog of well-known Sting solo songs that might be meant as red meat for the star's hardcore fans, but rather took me out of the world that’s being built onstage.
Yet the vast majority of the score as it exists now makes for exciting, forceful musical theater, and performances by the likes of Esper, Applegate, Tucker and Kelly-Sordelet are already in a strong place. With plenty of time to tweak the story’s weak points before the show’s Broadway opening four months from now, The Last Ship’s creators are well on their way to launching a seaworthy vessel.