Friday, October 31, 2014

Broadway Review—Sting's Musical "The Last Ship"

The Last Ship
Music & lyrics by Sting, book by John Logan & Brian Yorkey
Directed by Joe Mantello
Performances began September 29, 2014
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York, NY

The Last Ship (photo: Joan Marcus)
Sting's best solo album, 1991's The Soul Cages, was crammed with his most personal songs, referencing his life growing up in England's shipbuilding region and taking the measure of his grief and anger over his father's death. The opener, "Island of Souls," a lyrically elegant dirge, distills— in a mere six-plus minutes—the plot of Sting's new Broadway musical The Last Ship, about a young man who returns to his small seaside hometown after years on the ocean.

The concise, powerful imagery of "Island of Souls" echoes throughout the 2-1/2 hour The Last Ship which, though superbly staged and acted—the show might even provoke a tear or two from its audience's eyes—has little sense of real drama, let alone tragedy, while the title ship is built; instead it hits on every imaginable dramatic cliche.

Unsurprisingly, the haunting "Island of Souls" opens the show, its lyrics changed, as it introduces Gideon Fletcher—not Billy as in the original song—as the hero. Sting's own hometown Wallsend is the setting for the tired plot that's been concocted by book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Gideon (the sympathetic Michael Esper) comes back home from his 15 years at sea and expects both his father Joe (a ship riveter who disowned Gideon when he left) and his first love Meg (the lively, lissome Rachel Tucker) to remain where he left them so long ago. But he's too late: Dad recently died and Meg has a teenage son Tom (the scrappy Collin Kelly-Sordelet) and a lover, Arthur (the strong-voiced Aaron Lazar), the only smart local working to salvage scrap from the town's beloved—but shuttered—shipyard. 

The rest of the men, now unemployed, spend their time drinking in the pub where Meg works and bemoaning their fate: cheaper labor in Asia has made them expendable. Leave it to jolly old Father O'Brien (Fred Applegate, having great fun with the cliched drunken Irish priest character) to have an idea—and the capital—for the men to take over the yard to build one last ship, which will be launched....but to where? This naggingly important question is never answered, making The Last Ship more heavily symbolic than it need be and keeping it from reaching its tragic-dramatic potential.

David Zinn's set, comprising the shipyard's dingy steel girders and catwalks, bleeds authenticity, but since other shows have used these visuals it seems instantly passe, however harrowingly lit by the talented Christopher Akerlind. Joe Mantello's direction provides as much variety as one can squeeze out of a show set in a shipyard and a pub, while Stephen Hoggett's repetitive choreography, consisting of his increasingly familiar odd gestures and foot-stomping, is indistinguishable from his work on the musical Once.

Sting's new songs, dragged down by a certain sameness on his own recording last year, are enthusiastically fleshed out onstage by the rock-steady cast and Rob Mathes' striking arrangements; still, the four older Sting tunes ("Island of Souls," "All This Time," "When We Dance" and "Ghost Story") are far superior to the batch composed for the show. 

The Last Ship is a worthy, serious musical—no Disneyfied Synchronicity The Jukebox Musical for Sting—but it's also been torpedoed by its book of banalities.

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