Thursday, October 30, 2014

99. Review of THE LAST SHIP (October 29, 2014)


If you’ve been following the press reports on THE LAST SHIP, the big new Broadway musical with a score by the estimable Sting, you’ll be aware that it received what are usually called mixed reviews. Sting didn’t write the book, which is by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, but it’s inspired by his gritty youth in northeastern England’s town of Wallsend.  As others have pointed out, the book is the show’s chief drawback, but it has more than enough genuine heart to support the mostly beautiful, often thrilling score, which (despite some detractors) is as good as and far superior to most of the new Broadway musicals of the past two seasons. And the production itself is as fine as they get, with perfect casting, smashing movement/choreography, splendid acting and singing, and superb design elements.

Rachel Tucker, Michael Esper. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Three stories work in tandem in THE LAST SHIP. First, there’s the one about a gritty town that learns its shipbuilding business is closing. The shipbuilders reject the company’s offer to get them other work, and decide to illegally occupy the shipyard. Using the funds being saved for a new church (with the priest’s approval, no less), they determine to build one last ship. What kind of ship it is we never learn, but it would surely cost much more than a single church to pay for it. In fact, it’s only when the ship’s launching is celebrated that the men realize they haven’t given it a name, which is just as unlikely as everything that gets us to this point. (What the men will do when the last ship sails is not addressed.) Thus, much as it’s presented within a musical’s version of rough-accented, profanity-spewing, working class hero naturalism, you have to navigate this musical ship’s conceit with your disbelief billowing like a sail in the wind (or dismiss it all as “a metaphor”). Like other British-inspired tales of resolute everymen banding together to achieve some seemingly impossible goal—think KINKY BOOTS and THE FULL MONTY—THE LAST SHIP commemorates the spirit of camaraderie that insists nothing is impossible if decent souls band together for the common good. 

Second, we have the prodigal son story in which Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper), loosely based on Sting himself, is first seen as a young lad (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) who, fed up with the limitations of Wallsend, leaves behind the young Meg Dawson (Dawn Cantwell), the girl he loves, to see the world and make something of himself. When he returns, 15 years later, having failed in his mission, he tries to reconnect with Meg (Rachel Tucker), but, much as she still loves this gruff yet tender wanderer, she’s engaged to Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar). Arthur, an upright guy who wants to marry Meg and care for her and Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), her 15-year-old son by Gideon, is the show’s closest thing to an antagonist, since he works for the company and tries to prevent the last ship from being built. 

And third, there’s Gideon’s struggle to come to terms with the memory of his late father, Joe (Jamie Jackson), whose death has brought him home. Joe was a brutal man who often beat Gideon, and Gideon now must also resolve issues with his own son that arise on his return. Arthur, whom Tom calls Dad, complicates matters. Another father also plays a role, the humorously dissolute Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), from whom Gideon, on coming home, almost immediately seeks absolution, but whose own time on earth is coming to an end. 

Rachel Tucker, Aaron Lazar. Photo: Joan Marcus.

These principal story elements—and minor ones, including that concerning the foreman, Jackie
White (Jimmy Nails) and his wife Peggy (Sally Ann Triplett)—are tied together by 20 songs, every one of them tuneful, ranging from lyrical, even heartbreaking, ballads to dirges and stirring anthems, some with a Celtic echo, others in the Kurt Weill vein, and all of them definitely Sting. Several are reprised (the rousingly rhythmic title song, gets four shots), and each is staged with imagination, sensitivity, and beauty by director Joe Mantello or choreographer Steven Hoggett. There are many standouts, but I might mention “Island of Souls,” “What Say You, Meg,” “We’ve Got Now’t Else,” and “The Night the Pugilist Learned to Dance” as among my favorites.

Sally Ann Triplett (red jacket), Fred Applegate (to her left), Jimmy Nail (standing center), and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.

As per his well-deserved reputation, Mr. Hoggett’s dances derive from everyday activities and avoid the standard leaps, thrusts, and kicks of conventional Broadway terpsichore. His shipbuilders, for example, go about their routines with shifting masculine attitudes, lots of stamping, and, in one memorable sequence, their tools, including a brilliant use of fiery welding torches. The finale to Act 1, where the men are lined up at the rear, holding hands across their bodies in the pouring rain before they rush toward a downstage chain link fence to climb it, is breathtakingly vigorous and exciting. 

Company of THE LAST SHIP. Photo: Joan Marcus.

THE LAST SHIP can be grim and dark, but, other than being set in suitably dreary environs, including a church, shipyard, jail cell, and pub (sets and costumes by David Zinn, lights by Christopher Akerlind), it has plenty of emotional variety, leavened by robust humor embodied in Father O’Brien’s proclivity for scandalous behavior and language. There’s also a powerfully infectious spirit of optimism that often lightens the mood.

Michael Esper. Photo: Joan Marcus.

All the characters are compellingly acted and well sung. Michael Esper’s Gideon sings with huskiness reminiscent of Sting’s own sound, and carries himself with properly romantic machismo. Rachel Tucker’s Meg is ballsy and sexy, her rich voice a perfect match for Mr. Esper’s. Mr. Lazar’s good looks and more traditional Broadway voice make him an appropriately sympathetic rival for Meg’s affections, while Mr. Nail absolutely nails the authenticity of the rough-edged (although seasick-prone) Jackie, and Ms. Triplett never trips as Peggy. Fred Applegate couldn’t be better as the avuncular Irish priest, smoking, drinking, cursing, and lightening everyone’s load despite his own burdens. 

Sally Ann Triplett and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.

This vessel may now and then list in choppy seas, but it always rights itself. When the voyage is over, you’ll be glad you traveled aboard THE LAST SHIP.

Neil Simon Theatre
250 W. 52nd Street
Open ended run.

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