To wisdom of memorable songs, Sting’s musical ‘The Last Ship’ adds mystery of grace
Review: “The Last Ship,” with music by Sting and a book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, directed by Joe Mantello, in its pre-Broadway run at Bank of America Theatre, through July 13. ★★★★
By Nancy Malitz
It’s not often that a composer introduces his first Broadway-bound musical at the age of 64, but then Sting is the sort of artist who never stops spreading his wings. One of the great rock singer-songwriters of the late 20th century and the player of many musical instruments, he is first of all Sting. But his art bears the broad cultural influence of timeless oldies like Chaucer, William Blake and John Dowland right up through classical music and jazz and – yes – Rodgers and Hammerstein to the hip-hop artists and poet-playwrights of the present day.
Sting has picked up collaborators from his steady work in film and television and he has even suffered the prolonged torture of a Disney animated movie that morphed so completely his songs were largely cut. Who better, then, to tackle the cut-throat business of the Broadway musical?
With “The Last Ship,” Sting’s wise and lyrical ode to the English shipyard of Wallsend where he was born, and to a way of life that ended with his father’s generation, we see the town through the eyes of Gideon Fletcher, who at 15 defied his father expectations and fled in anger from what he viewed as a hard-toil, dead-end life for high adventure on the seas.
Fourteen more years have passed when Gideon returns to reckon with his father’s death, the girl he left behind, a shipyard sold for salvage and a rudderless community with a broken heart.
Gideon’s rough edges and his outsider status constitute a useful foil, in the spirit of carnival barker Billy Bigelow (“Carousel”) and troubled fisherman Peter Grimes (in Britten’s opera) to bring the people of this close-knit town into focus. Wallsend is really a parallel character, one in desperate need of a ritual as effective as the traditional wake for honoring their paralyzing grief, as they struggle to lay an entire way of life to rest.
Salty-tongued Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), who can make a curse seem Holy Writ, is the one who comes up with an idea sufficiently super-sized to do the trick – build one last ship themselves, take it to sea for a year, and visit other former shipyard ports of call as a living testament to the dignity of their labor and the worth of the shipbuilder’s soul.
The amazing grace of this idea has been developed into an elegiac thread of astounding beauty by Sting and book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey, with an all-star production team headed by director Joe Mantello. The commitment to build a “last ship” is the most fully-formed part of the musical at this point in its development. It’s a celebration that seems destined to touch the hearts of all who have watched their way of life evaporate in the post-industrial cloud of carriage trades, clothing manufacturers, record companies, publishers and mom-and-pop shops of all kinds.
David Zinn’s stage design puts us in the shadow of a majestically rusting shipyard, and the sound of the music is rich in pipes and fiddles (beautifully orchestrated by Rob Mathes) with very little of the distortion that often characterizes amplified Broadway in Chicago shows. The show opens in New York at the Neil Simon Theatre on Sept. 29.
We meet half a dozen richly drawn characters who step forward from the chorus of citizens – among them foreman Jackie White (the admirably rugged longtime Sting friend Jimmy Nail, sounding a lot like Sting himself) whose idea of a hero is a dying shipbuilder who keeps St. Peter waiting till the end of his shift. Jackie’s spirited wife Peggy (Sally Ann Triplett) and pub matron Beatrice Dees (Shawna M. Hamic) each lead group rants and demands for respect – the all-out revelry is rebellious, infectious and underscored by Steven Hoggett’s choreography, hard and hearty.
What’s not well shaped yet is the tender part of the story – the part that traces what has happened, and what will happen, to the lingering love between willful Gideon and Meg, the girl, now woman, he has left behind. She now has a teenage son and a steady man who loves her. Sting’s unforgettable number “It’s Not the Same Moon,” which he introduced in his own voice on the “Last Ship” album that formed the concept for this musical, is the right answer to the place their love must go, and it becomes a duet in the musical.
Two pairs of actors play young and old Meg and Gideon. The elder pair are Rachel Tucker and Michael Esper, both persuasive singers, handsome actors, and as believable in their roiling mix of lingering sexual chemistry, anger and uncertainty as the plot allows. But there’s just not enough in the story — yet — about the sort of man that Gideon has become, and the forces that shaped him, to cause an audience to buy the willful twists and turns that place Gideon at the center of crucial town moments, much less to persuade us of the romantic outcome for man, woman and boy.
One’s heart lies with the townsfolk and their wise-cracking spiritual leader, who affectionately reminds his flock that he has “blessed the odd infant — some exceedingly odd.” Father O’Brien knows there is no “Kinky Boots” solution to Wallsend’s doomed yards. Funny as Applegate is in his role as the priest who snags a cig in confessional and regards the time he gave up drink as the “worst three hours” of his life, it’s a strength that Father O’Brien gets the serious stuff right, from standing in solidarity with his flock to acknowledging the sacramental nature of work itself.
It remains the creative crew’s job to get the serious stuff right regarding Gideon and Meg, and it’s probably going to be the work of the summer after the Chicago run is done. Meg’s new man – Arthur Millburn (sweet-voiced Aaron Lazar) – has the show’s best new song, a heart-stopping proposal number called “What Say You, Meg?” which comes near the end of Act One. Meanwhile, Father O’Brien has given Gideon and Meg some advice about seeing things through that seems applicable enough to the show itself. I’m figuring a sit-down with Sting and this priestly alter ego ought to do it, especially if it leads to one more sensational song.
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreInChicago.com
- New York production details: Go to TheLastShip.com
- Sample “The Last Ship” extended album: Go to YouTube.com
Tags: Aaron Lazar, Brian Yorkey, Broadway in Chicago, David Zinn, Fred Applegate, Jimmy Nail, Joe Mantello, John Logan, Michael Esper, Neil Simon Theatre, Rachel Tucker, Rob Mathes, Sally Ann Triplett, Shawna M. Hamic, Steven Hoggett, Sting, The Last Ship