November 15, 2014

"The Last Ship" Finds Itself a Bit Adrift

The rock star Sting has done everything he could to make his first Broadway musical a hit: writing a wonderfully melodious score and allying himself with experienced and award-winning pros like the director Joe Mantello (Wicked) and the book writers John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal). He's also gone all out to promote the show with a song cycle CD, a PBS concert and appearances on every talk show with a couch. (Update: Sting will actually appear in a key role in the show from Dec. 9 to Jan. 10).

But all that hard work has only partially paid off: The Last Ship is an entertaining musical but it’s not a really good one. While the score does everything good show music should—defines character and advances the plot, gives the performers material that shows off their vocal skills and creates earworms that allow the audience to leave the theater humming its tunes—the book leaves most audience members, including me, just scratching their heads.  

Inspired by Sting’s memories of growing up in the shipbuilding towns in the northeast of England, The Last Ship sails into familiar waters as it tells the story of a working-class community whose economic survival and sense of identity is threatened by global forces and Margaret Thatcher. You know, like the coal miners in Billy Elliott or the shoemakers in Kinky Boots.

But where the people in those other shows try to fight back with strikes, anti-Thatcher demonstrations and new business models, the out-of-work shipbuilders decide to break into their old factory and build a final vessel. Why? Well, the musical never truly makes that clear. What are they going to do with the boat once it’s finished?  It’s murky about that too.

 At the center of the story is Gideon, who rejects the idea of spending his life in the shipyards like generations of men before him, including his hard-to-love dad who was crippled in a work accident. So in a prologue, the lad runs away at 15, leaving behind his sweetheart Meg.

When Gideon returns home 15 years later, his father has died, the shipyard has been sold to a scrap metal company and Meg is the single mom of a teen boy and the fiancée of another local guy who is now managing the scavenging operation. But after a few big production numbers and a couple of ballads, Gideon has joined the renegade shipbuilders and is wooing Meg again.
The reunited lovers are played with winning authenticity by Michael Esper and Rachel Tucker. And the hunky Aaron Lazar makes a worthy rival in the romantic triangle. But since the central plot makes so little sense, it’s hard to root for the characters even when the actors performing them are as good as these folks are. 

Still, there are pleasures to be had. Everyone is in fine voice singing Sting’s rousing anthems and plaintive laments. David Zinn’s stripped down set and Christopher Akerlind’s moody lighting establish just the right melancholy mood. Meanwhile, Fred Applegate manages to add a bit of tart nuance to the clichéd role of the profane and whiskey drinking Irish priest whom everyone loves. 
And as I said in a tweet right after I saw the show, the choral numbers are terrific. The brawny guys who play the ship makers are not your typical chorus boys but it’s thrilling to hear them sing Sting’s defiant anthems and to watch them perform the swaggering movements choreographed by Steven Hoggett.

The audience the night my friend Jessie and I saw The Last Ship seemed very happy to be there, especially the woman sitting behind me who laughed at even the lamest jokes. But the show is only selling two-thirds of its nightly tickets and rumors are circulating that the producers are considering putting Sting in the show in the hope that will draw more of his fans to the theater.
The track record for rock star composers on Broadway has been a spotty one with thumbs up for Elton John (The Lion King, Billy Elliott)  and Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots) but thumbs way down for Paul Simon (The Capeman) and the U2 guys Bono and The Edge (Spider-Man). 

Sting was aware of the odds when he signed on to make The Last Ship (click here to read about his thoughts on that) now he just has to hope that the tide begins to turn in his favor.

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