The Last Ship.Neil Simon Theatre (see Broadway). Music and lyrics by Sting. Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Directed by Joe Mantello. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.
The Last Ship: In brief
Longtime rocker Sting tries his hand at the Broadway musical with this semiautobiographical tale set in the working-class seaside town of Wallsend. An ambitious young man leaves his roots behind but finds himself caught in the wake of his past. Joe Mantello (Wicked) directs a fine cast that includes Michael Esper, Jimmy Nail and Sally Ann Triplett.
The Last Ship: Theater review by David Cote
To use shipbuilding as an analogy for crafting musicals, the songs are the hull—the most visible part of the thing, taking up the most space. But you won’t sail far without a strong, even keel, the beam around which the hull is constructed—the book, in other words. With The Last Ship, a fervent, rollicking and often glorious new musical scored by Sting and inspired by the town of his youth, the hull is magnificent, the keel has problems.
When the muscular ensemble is tearing into Sting’s rueful ballads or jaunty barroom reels, you almost forget that the narrative stakes are exceedingly attenuated—unemployed shipwrights in a northern-English town occupy a decommissioned factory to build one final vessel as an act of defiant solidarity. It’s a nice gesture, a symbolic blow for the working man priced out of his profession, but book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey don’t quite establish what the lads hope to achieve—beyond a chance to drill their workplace shanty “We’ve Got Now’t Else” into our limbic system.
A similar lack of sympathy-generating detail afflicts the parallel plotline of Gideon (Michael Esper), who left his abusive father and stifling small-town life 15 years ago to…well, not become frontman of a rock band—that would be too obvious. Gideon explains to Meg (Rachel Tucker), the girl he left brokenhearted and knocked up, that he sailed for a few years before his father’s death brought him home. Nostalgia-buffeted Gideon wants to rekindle the romance, but there are complications: Meg’s sensible and loving boyfriend, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), and Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), the fruit of her teenage union with Gideon.
Esper is lusty and scruffily appealing as always, and Tucker has fiery appeal and terrific pipes, but their relationship push-and-pull is a bit of a nonstarter. Anyway, the evening’s real theme is the healing of wounds between fathers and sons—a motif that gains some traction by the second act, even if the plot’s emotional and political strands intertwine awkwardly.
These might sound like grave structural problems, but they don’t actually sink the show; director Joe Mantello and choreographer Steven Hoggett establish a galvanizing mood of gritty, romantic heroism, perfectly embodied by Jimmy Nail, the vulpine Geordie who plays plucky foreman Jackie White. And Sting’s rich, lyrically confident score is a genuine revelation: beautiful numbers that hint at influences from Rodgers & Hammerstein, Kurt Weill and Anglo-Celtic folk, but are still in his brooding, cagey voice. When the men weld sheets of steel while singing these anthems to drink, love, work or the sea, sparks fly everywhere.
THE BOTTOM LINE Despite a book that lists, Sting’s scores sails on.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote