New York City Theater
"The Last Ship"
Neil Simon Theater
Overlook the negatives and concentrate on the positives to find the worth of “The Last Ship.” The new musical, with which pop star Sting makes an impressive Broadway debut as composer and lyricist, tells of thwarted love and father-son conflicts against a throbbing background of shipbuilders thrown out of work. While the plot rambles, the show has a soulful intensity and performances filled with rough-hewn poetry.
Based loosely on Sting’s northern England background, it tells of Gideon who, not wanting to be stuck in an industry for which he has no affinity, located in Wallsend, a mid-sized town of few other opportunities, leaves his despairing, disapproving father and the family tradition of shipbuilding. Seeking adventure, he travels for 15 years, returning for his dad’s funeral (which he misses by two days). He’s also returning to Meg, the girl he left behind, now a single mother with a son named Tom who, though Gideon’s biological offspring, has been well taken care of by Arthur, Meg’s fiancé.
Meanwhile, egged on by firebrand Jackie White and Father O’Brien, the hard-drinking, terminally ill, jolly town priest, the shipbuilders take over the yards to build one last ship. Appropriating funds from church collections, they defy authorities and finish their task.
But what have they really accomplished? There’s no resolution, just an escape. Will all the town’s men just set sail for parts unknown? For how long? What are the consequences? Will they return to an industry on the mend? Could this all be metaphorical, the ship standing for recapturing past glory? Is it a voyage towards death? Meanwhile, pondering unfulfilled ideas, we spend so much time occupied with the repetitious travails of Gideon, Meg and Arthur that we become less and less emotionally involved.
Yet, when not immersed in the libretto by prize winners John Logan (Tony for “Red”) and Brian Yorkey (Pulitzer and Tony for “Next to Normal”), we can take honest pleasure in the production’s trappings, its striking scenery and costumes by David Zinn, its moody lighting by Christopher Akerlind. As directed with fierce energy by Joe Mantello, considerably abetted by choreographer Steven Hoggett, actual dancing is delayed until well into the first act, after we’ve gotten to know the town’s menfolk. Then their foot-stomping is so well integrated that it can’t be set aside as “choreography.”
The songs, too, are indigenous, ranging from the hymn-like title tune to rollicking sea chants, ballads, reels and, best of all, the memorable “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance,” the score’s highlight. As orchestrated and arranged by conductor Rob Mathes, the music soars.
Michael Esper is a forceful, plaintive Gideon, while Rachel Tucker is a fiery Meg. Fred Applegate avoids the cutes as the plain-spoken Father O’Brien, Jimmy Nail is a formidable Jackie White, Aaron Lazar an empathetic Arthur and Collin Kelly-Sordelet a real find as Tom.
Give “The Last Ship” an “A” for daring and ambition. It’s a pulsating musical filled with goosebumps every time the cast launches into song and dance. Use those in-between dialogue scenes to rest up from the excitement of the musical numbers.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 4, 2014