My second voyage on the often majestic, occasionally shaky vessel The Last Ship seemed more electric than my first outing back in October. It wasn’t the presence, three rows in front of me, of President Bill Clinton, his wife Hillary and their daughter Chelsea. Nor was it, on the other side of the orchestra, ticket holders Andrew Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellowes (threatening to adapt School of Rock next fall). No, giving the joint that extra jolt and shower of sparks was the man with stubble and a soaring, smoky tenor. Sting, whose glorious score anchors The Last Ship, has stepped into the role of Jackie White, the shipbuilding ex-foreman who leads his lads in one last go at scaling a “mountain of steel.” Critics were invited back because of Sting, also perhaps to reappraise a show that didn’t get a fair enough shake first time around. I stand by my original review, but here are some extra incentives why you come aboard, if you haven’t already.
5. It shines in comparison to the season thus far. For those hungry for significant new musicals, the fall was disappointing. Despite smartly sassy diversions (Heathers: The Musical) and ambitious but unwieldy epics (The Fortress of Solitude), there haven’t been a lot of great new tuners. Everyone is looking eagerly ahead to Honeymoon in Vegas and the transfer of the quirky, darkly gorgeous Fun Home. Downtown at the Public, hopes are high for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. For now, The Last Ship is the best new musical on Broadway.
4. Sting is no dilettante. In terms of his fit for the role, Sting is less grizzled and haggard-looking than Jimmy Nail, who originated the role. As Jackie, the trim and graceful rock star doesn’t look like the sort of man who subsists on pints of Newcastle and oceans of regret. But years on concert stages, a few choice film roles and a stint 25 years ago in The Threepenny Opera have given this showman plenty of chops. And that voice.
3. It’s a terrific score. We knew that Sting was a seasoned songwriter from his years with the Police and then in a lengthy, varied solo career. But the big surprise was how broad and theatrical his musical palette could be. The score ranges from barroom reels to Celtic ballads, with touches of Kurt Weil and swoony romantic numbers that make you think of Rodgers & Hammerstein. It never feels pastiche and it never feels like the recycled pop of most contemporary scores.
2. It’s a terrific ensemble. Technically speaking, Sting may be the only bona fide rock star up there, but anyone who appreciates fine acting and full-bodied musical-theater performance must bow before Michael Esper, Rachel Tucker, Sally Ann Triplett and Aaron Lazar.
1. It may not be around that much longer. Sting has given the Neil Simon Theatre’s box office a bump, as expected, but The Last Ship is still not breaking the $1 million mark. Tickets are on sale through the end of May, and it’s conceivable that producers will keep the show afloat until Tony nominations are announced on April 28, but if sales dip any lower, the voyage could come to an early end.