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He may not appear onstage, but there’s no mistaking the voice of Sting in both wistful balladeer and rousing reveler modes in his stirring score for The Last Ship. Set against the demise of the shipyards in the composer’s hometown of Wallsend in North East England, this melancholy musical is without doubt a heartfelt, intensely personal project. It’s performed with vigorous commitment by an accomplished cast, robustly staged by Joe Mantello, and designed by David Zinn with a harsh beauty that seems salvaged out of the rusted hull of a once-proud sea vessel. Sadly, it’s also a bit of a yawn.
For anyone who cares about the endangered species of the original Broadway musical, that’s a regrettable shortcoming, particularly when so much love and artistry have been poured into the show. There’s genuine feeling in the songs’ exploration of the conflicted bonds between fathers and sons, and the crippling losses of men robbed of their work, thereby denied their dignity and pride.
So what’s missing? It’s easy to see the central figure of Gideon Fletcher as a romanticized alter ego of Sting (Gordon Sumner at birth). But the plodding book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey gives him too little psychological dimension to come alive. It also strands him among generic characters and clichéd situations seen in countless Brit films set in depressed industrial towns blighted by Thatcherism. What’s worse is that it falls back on that old standby of using allegory as an excuse for a plot that — sorry — simply doesn’t float.
As pretty as the songs are, this is the rare musical that needs fewer numbers and more book scenes. That’s especially the case in the shuffling second act, in which serious anthemic overload takes hold.
There are two principal narrative threads that gradually entwine. One focuses on Gideon (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), who clashes with his father Joe (Jamie Jackson) over his refusal to take an apprenticeship in the shipyards. He flees up the River Tyne, promising his sweetheart Meg (Dawn Cantwell) that he’ll come back for her.
Cut to the now-adult Gideon (Michael Esper) returning after 15 years away as a merchant seaman, two days too late for his dad’s funeral. Meg (played as an adult by the appealing Rachel Tucker) gave up waiting and is now romantically involved with Arthur (Aaron Lazar). But despite Arthur’s repeated offers to marry her and be a father to her 15-year-old son Tom (Kelly-Sordelet again), Meg keeps putting him off, unable to explain the reasons even to herself. Anyone who has ever watched a soap opera will guess Tom’s paternity; only Gideon is unaccountably slow on the uptake.
The second strand concerns the unemployed shipyard workers, wallowing at the pub while refusing lower-paid job offers from the new owner, a scrap-metal company. The sole turncoat is Arthur, who serves as mediator with his resentful former colleagues. That group is led by the principled foreman Jackie White, played by the wonderful Jimmy Nail, who invests humanity and gravitas into the otherwise hackneyed plot, tackling his songs with a nice dash of Shane MacGowan-esque growl.
Given that no stereotype is too crusty for the writers, there’s also a boozy, salt-of-the-earth Irish pastor, Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), succumbing to cancer. In an inspirational sermon, he urges the disenfranchised men to occupy the yard and build one last ship to sail away as an act of defiant resilience, “borrowing” church development funds to finance the operation.
That blarney becomes the driving force of the narrative, along with a host of attendant questions. Will Gideon follow generations of men in his family and become a proud shipbuilder after all? Will Tom go against his mother’s wishes and join the workers, risking arrest? And once the ship is built, will the lad sail off to an unknown destination with his new father and seemingly every other man in the town? Then there’s Meg’s wavering between dependable Arthur and the love of her youth who let her down.
Despite affecting moments, none of these questions acquires much urgency because the characters are not drawn with sufficient nuance to make them real. Esper has proven himself a soulful performer, both in musicals (American Idiot) and plays (The Lyons). But Gideon is shortchanged by the writers. While the reasons given for his flight from an ill-tempered father and a life in the yards are serviceable enough, there’s no attempt to explore what kept him away so long, aside from vague allusions to him being the eternal drifter, torn from his roots by a culture of hardened men. And while we’re meant to believe that he never stopped loving Meg, he adds insult to injury by telling her that he would have returned had he known about Tom. Gee, thanks.
That offhand treatment of the women characters is a constant; they are strictly cutouts, like “brassy zaftig barmaid” or “feisty community backbone,” though there is one intriguing ’80s refugee in the ensemble who looks like she escaped from a Flock of Seagulls video. (The show is set in a non-specific timeframe.)
Screenwriter and playwright Logan, who took charge after Yorkey’s earlier drafts, clearly intends the ship to function as a symbol of hope, redemption and the battered but unbroken spirit of the blue-collar British male. But even on its own elastic terms, this glum fairy tale doesn’t hold water. It has enough elements of gritty realism to leave audiences pondering such distracting questions as how a crew with only one experienced sailor is going to navigate a massive boat out to sea; where their months-long voyage will take them; and what they or their families back home will live on.
To be fair, there is some historical precedent in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation that thwarted Conservative government closures in Glasgow in 1971, but that doesn’t make this fanciful variation more plausible.
On a visual level, the production is impressive, and Mantello keeps things moving as best he can in a bloated show that’s at least a half-hour too long. Zinn’s set, with its corroded walls, thick ropes and industrial scaffolds and gangways, is evocative, bathed in the shadowy textures of Christopher Akerlind‘s burnished lighting. Water imagery is a frequent motif, seen to gorgeous effect across a scrim through the opening number. The choreography, by poetic movement specialist Steven Hoggett, fits the material. But all the rowdy, hyper-masculine stomping and suspended gestures grow repetitive, unfortunately calling to mind the merciless Forbidden Broadway parody of Hoggett’s work on Once.
The musical’s chief distinction is Sting’s score, which includes most of the 2013 album of the same name as well as a handful of pre-existing tracks (“All This Time,” “Island of Souls,” “When We Dance”). The artist’s fans alone may be enough to constitute an initial audience. Even if his rhymes can be a touch insistent (“Life is a dance, a romance where ye take your chances/Just don’t be left on the shores of regretful glances”), Sting’s skill with musical narrative is unquestionable. If the numbers eventually wear out their welcome that has less to do with the quality and diversity of the Celtic-flavored score than with the problematic storytelling of Logan and Yorkey’s book. The truth is that all the melodic tunes in the world can’t save a show from the crucial failing of being dull.
Cast: Michael Esper, Rachel Tucker, Jimmy Nail, Aaron Lazar, Sally Ann Triplett, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, Fred Applegate, Eric Anderson, Craig Bennett, Dawn Cantwell, Jeremy Davis, Bradley Dean, Colby Foytik, David Michael Garry, Timothy Gulan, Shawna M. Hamic, Rich Hebert, Leah Hocking, Todd A. Horman, Jamie Jackson, Drew McVety, Matthew Stocke, Jeremy Woodard
Director: Joe Mantello
Music & lyrics: Sting
Book: John Logan, Brian Yorkey
Set & costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Music director, orchestrations, arrangements: Rob Mathes
Choreographer: Steven Hoggett
Presented by Jeffrey Seller, Kathryn Schenker, Kevin McCollum, Sander Jacobs, James L. Nederlander, Roy Furman, Herb Alpert, Jerry Moss
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