By Karen Isaacs
I really wish I liked Sting’s new musical The Last Ship more than I did. Sting has been a theater enthusiast for years and now he is following in the footsteps of Elton John (Billy Elliot), Bono (SpiderMan – Turn off the Light), Cindi Lauper (Kinky Boots) and others in writing a full length musical.
But unlike the others who adapted material or characters, Sting and his collaborators has created a new work.
The team is good — music and lyrics by Sting with the book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Yorkey won a Pulitzer for the book to Next to Normal and Logan wrote the well received play Red. Add to that Joe Mantello as the director; among his work is Take Me Out, Assassins, Wicked, and more.
So what went “not-so-right”? It is not just one thing but a number of small things that makes The Last Ship interesting but not stellar. Actually the music and the performances are good.
First of all the plot. The idea that Sting would tell an original story based on his hometown — a ship-building town in England that fell on hard times — seemed promising. But all the high priced talent did was a produce a story that was obvious and we’ve all seen before. Plus it is hard to know if parts of the story are purely allegorical or supposedly real.
The ship yard has closed and will become a salvage yard; the workers are distraught –after extended unemployment they still view themselves as ship builders so they reject the opportunity to apply for jobs in the new salvage yard. All, that is except, Arthur who is now working for the new company to everyone else’s scorn.
Then there is Gideon who has returned to the town upon his father’s death. They had a difficult relationship and Gideon had left 15 years ago to become a merchant seaman. He harbors dreams of rekindling the romance he had with Meg; after all he had promised her he would return.
As might have been predicted, Meg has moved on with her life and is paired with Arthur who is helping to raise her 15-year-old son; yet she seems reluctant to marry him.
Adding to the mix is the local Priest, Father O’Brien who is dying but deeply devoted both to his flock and the local pub.
From this description, I bet you can guess the general thrust of the plot. With the help of Father O’Brien the men take over the shipyard to build one “last ship” and sail it down the river. Gideon and Meg spar before he and her son (Tom) reach and understanding. Meg realizes where her future lies.
Strong leading male characters add depth to the show but also make it difficult for the audience to know for whom to root. Gideon (played by Michael Esper) seems clueless. Did he really expect Meg to wait for him all those years with nary a word? Arthur (Aaron Lazar) is a decent man but lacks excitement. The yard’s foreman, Jackie (Jimmy Nail) is the older, brooding man. And Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate) is both stereotypical and warm. (Think a slightly older version of Bing Crosby is Going My Way.) But each of the characters disappears from the stage — and our mind — for relatively long stretches of the show.
My theater companion remarked that the music was in the same mode as Sting’s more recent work. Some have a definite sea chantey flavor and others are more Kurt Weill. There are some lovely songs though at times the lyrics are predictable. Some I would like to hear again — “It’s Not the Same Moon,’ “The Last Ship,” “When We Dance,” among them. Others sound like anthems inspired by Les Miz — pseudo-anthems to rouse the audience. The lyrics are sometimes too vague to help us understand the characters.
All the performances are strong. Jimmy Nail is both a British actor with two BBC TV series to his credit and chart-topping musician. He sings strongly and projects character of Jackie — defeated but angry. Michael Esper as Gideon has what is probably thought of as the “romantic lead” and he does try to be charming but the character makes it difficult. Aaron Lazar has a very good voice as Arthur but the role is limited in its dimensions. Fred Applegate as Father O’Brien is charming and sweet though salty.
Only two women have major roles: Rachel Tucker plays Meg — the feisty woman that Gideon left behind. You see her confusion when he returns. The memory of that young love causes her to question her choice.. Sally Ann Triplett plays Jackie’s wife who encourages him to take on the “last ship” project.
David Zinn created the flexible, industrial atmosphere of the set as well as the costumes. It does look like a ship yard but it transforms nicely to other locations as well. It is not often that you see welding sparks on stage. The lighting by Christopher Akerlind fits the sometimes dark mood of the show while the sound design by Brian Ronan is very good.
My biggest complaint was the choreography by Steven Hoggett. Besides being repetitive it often seemed as though either Stomp or Riverdance had wandered into the Neil Simon Theater by accident.
The Last Ship is not a bad show; you will enjoy large parts of it. But you may leave the theater, as I did, thinking it could have been so much better.
The Last Ship is at the Neil Simon Theater on W. 52nd Street. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.