By: David Sheward
The title of the new musical featuring a score by pop star Sting offers plenty of satirical opportunities: The Last Ship sinks, hits a reef, scuttles, etc
. etc. Fortunately, this vessel isn’t entirely unseaworthy. The score is catchy and moving, the staging by two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello is imaginative and gritty and Steven Hoggett’s choreography expresses character with quirky and unexpected movement, except when the actors are called upon to stomp their feet which happens about every 10 minutes.
The main problem is the surprisingly soapy book by two pros-John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal). Perhaps their British (Logan) and American (Yorkey) sensibilities clashed, because this collaboration just doesn’t work. Derived from Sting’s concept album, the plot follows the "Oppressed Laborers Fight Back" template with a nod to the "Torn Between Two Lovers" trope. Just like the coal miners in Billy Elliot and the shoemakers in Kinky Boots, the inhabitants of Wallsend, a town in the north of England not unlike the one where Sting grew up, are in danger of losing their jobs. In this case, the town’s means of financial support, the shipyard, cannot compete with foreign rivals in Korea and Japan. Rather than find positions with the new salvaging company, the workers band together to illegally build one last ship and plan to sail it to the North Sea. What they will do there and how they will make this mad venture pay off is never made clear. Are they going to haul cargo, go fishing, or just take a pleasure cruise? Sting, Logan and Yorkey forgot to include that little detail.
On the romantic end, prodigal son Gideon Fletcher picks this moment of crisis to return home after 15 years at sea after his dad dies and to reunite with his former sweetheart, barmaid Meg Dawson. Though Meg now is engaged to the reliable Arthur Millburn, who works for the salvage company, she still has feelings for Gideon. Who will Meg chose? Will the ship be built before dying Father Jim succumbs to cancer? And what about Meg’s 15-year-old son Tom? Any guesses as to his paternity? There are so many tired twists and holes in the plot-Gideon couldn’t have written Meg a letter?-it’s hard to care for this beleaguered lot.
With the aide of Christopher Akerlind’s versatile lighting, Mantello and Hoggett stage this drivel with verve and punch. Even as we groan at each contrivance, we sigh in admiration at the ingenuity with which it’s executed in stage terms. There’s plenty to savor in Sting’s flavorful score, even though the context is overly familiar. Yes, we get the missed-opportunity ballad ("It’s Not the Same Moon"), the live-life-to-the-fullest rousing group number ("Show Some Respect") and the father-son bonding moment ("The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance"). But they all intoxicate with their direct charm.
Michael Esper makes for an unlikely Gideon, not especially charismatic or convincing as the object of a burning passion, but he intensely imparts the character’s anger at an abusive father and delivers the songs with a lovely, Sting-like smoky tenor. Rachel Tucker shows more fire as the conflicted Meg, while Aaron Lazar is stiff as Arthur, but he makes the most of the quiet love song "What Say You, Meg?" Jimmy Nail lends sturdy support as the shipyard foreman. Veteran musical character actor Fred Applegate wisely underplays the alcoholic, foul-mouthed Irish priest but Sally Ann Triplett overdoes the foreman’s raucous wife.
Perhaps Sting’s name alone will be enough to keep this Ship sailing until Tony time, but with its poorly-built hull and masthead, I predict rough seas ahead.
Opened Oct. 26 for an open run. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St., NYC. Tue., Thu., 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including intermission. $68.75-$146.75. (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.
Originally Published on October 26, 2014 in ArtsinNY.com