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Sting’s music launches a compelling “The Last Ship” on Broadway

Roy Berko

(Member Cleveland Critics Circle, America Theatre Critics Association)

What do you do if you lived an unhappy childhood in a forlorn town in England’s industrial north?  If you are Sting, you leave, become a famous musician, win 16 Grammy awards, write a memoir (“Broken Music”) and then create a moving theatrical musical.  A musical which was inspired by the haunting landscape from which Sting fled, and inspired him to “try to put right what went wrong in the past.”

“The Last Ship” is not a light, fun, escapist musical.  It’s more “Les Misérables” than “On The Town,” more “Sweeney Todd” than “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

This is a musical with a serious message that exposes the underbelly of abuse, the need to escape reality, the frustration of attempting to go home, and a discovery of what could have been if a person did go back.  This is not a “happy ever after” tale, even if there are some laughs along the way and a glimmer of hope as the final curtain falls.

The story, written by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, centers on Gideon, who returns to Wallsend, England, after his father died.  Its has been 15 years since he fled the working class, shipbuilding town, to see what the world had to offer.  He not only left his father, but Meg, his girl friend, with a promise to come back and get her.  Upon his return he discovers that Meg has a son (Tom), a fiancée (Fletcher), and the town is in despair over the proposed closing of the ship yard.

Gideon becomes involved with the ship workers who desire to build one last ship before the yard is officially closed.  With the help of Father O’Brien, the community’s priest, and his “reapportioning” of the church’s contingency funds, the money for the ship is raised and the task is undertaken.

Gideon tries to renew his relationship with Meg, but though she still has strong feelings for him, the reality of a secure life with Fletcher wins out.  Complications set in when Gideon discovers that teenaged Tom, Meg’s son, is his child.  The play concludes when the “last ship” leaves the dry dock with Gideon and Tom aboard, in what may result in a satisfying ending to the tale.

The show features a score by Sting that includes original material, as well as three previously-written songs.  Fitting the plot, most of the music is serious in tone, some songs, are actually dirge-like.  The score is generally contemporary rock, with some tonal ballads.

The tale is not uplifting.  Neither is the music, and that’s a good thing, as it helps cement the theme to the story’s mood. The overall effect is positive for those willing to accept that musicals can, as many dramas do, have messages that require a serious tone.

Life, and lyrics to musical theatre songs are not always, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” nor, “Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels.”  Sometimes, appropriately, the words are, “And whatever you’d promised, whatever you’ve done, And whatever the station in life you’ve become.  In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, And whatever the weave of this life that you’ve spun, On the Earth or in Heaven or under the Sun, When the last ship sails.”

The production, under the adept directing of Joe Mantello, is visually compelling.  The shipyard, the building process of the ship, and the final launching, with the ship visually slipping into the sea, all grab and hold attention.

The pacing is appropriate to the material, generally intense and brooding.

David Zinn’s sets, consisting of scrim drops, scaffolding, fragmentary props, and electronic graphics are extremely effective, as is Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design.

Steven Hoggett’s creative choreography, containing much stomping and strong muscular moves, fits the score and the psyche of the mood of the ship workers and town folk.

The cast is excellent.

Michael Esper  has a strong singing voice and the physicality, that when added to his macho attitude and compelling presence, makes Gideon live.

Rachel Tucker is totally believable in her creation of the vulnerable, yet strong-willed Meg.  Her “August Winds,” sung with her younger self, Dawn Cantwell, effectively pushes the tale along.  Esper and Tucker’s “It’s Not the Same Moon,” is a well-performed, emotionally poignant ballad.

Collin Kelly-Sordelet creates a believable Tom.  He clearly comes across as an angst-driven teenager, in the mold of Gideon and maybe even Sting, himself, who needs to spread his wings.

Fred Applegate steals the show as the foul-mouthed, outspoken Father O’Brien.  Applegate is a master of the well-timed humorous line, accompanied by a twinkle in the eye.

The zaftig Shawna M. Hamic delighted with her second act curtain-raiser, “Mrs. Dees’ Rant.”

Sting indicates that writing the score was like “projectile vomiting.”  The characters were within him, “wrestling to get out.”  He found the experience to be “cathartic” as he exposed, “dislocated people railing against failure as they face tough choices.”  He summarizes the experience’s purpose for him by stating, “Maybe it’s over now.  Maybe I’ve exorcized all the ghosts.”

Capsule judgement:  Those willing to put aside preconceived ideas of the role of musical theatre to be escapist, not confronting dark and real issues, should find “The Last Ship” to be an emotional experience, as it probes the need to escape from certain realities of life, and the angst that flight can cause.  The powerful music, meaningful lyrics, emphatic dancing, and the sheer grandeur of the visual effects of “The Last Ship,” makes the production an exciting addition to the Broadway musical theatre lexicon.

“The Last Ship” is in an open-ended run at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York.