The Last Ship
Music and Lyrics by Sting
Powerful, soaring anthem to the working man
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|The Last Ship|
Review by Catey Sullivan
The storyline requires some honing, and the lead character needs work, but there’s no denying the soaring magnificence of the score Sting has penned for The Last Ship, his Broadway-bound, operatic tale of a prodigal shipbuilder’s son and a dying shipyard. There’s also no denying the emotional core of the show or how deeply it cuts in portraying the hard times and transcendent joys of the sort of working class folk who rarely see their lives reflected in the usually glossy, slickly produced world of big Broadway musicals.
Directed by Joe Mantello and choreographed by Steven Hoggett, this is not a show that looks like most big budget musicals. Go in expecting a chorus of shiny tap numbers and luxuriously coiffed chorines and you’ll be disappointed. Or more likely, enthralled. Set in a corner of northeastern England where ship yards that have been a way of life for generations are on the cusp of closing, the people of The Last Ship look like you and I. They’re slightly (or a lot) ground down by a tough times, hard work and low pay and they have a hard earned dignity that’s the antithesis of glamorous. You might not recognize them specifically, but to a one, they all look and feel heart-wrenchingly familiar .
The plot (book by Brian Yorkey and John Logan) takes audiences into Sting’s own past, although it would be presumptuous to read the piece as strictly autobiographical. The rocker comes from a shipbuilding town, a place he obviously left behind long ago. Yorkey and Logan’s book centers on such a youth, but there are no rock stars in The Last Ship.
We meet tough, hard-edged Gideon Fletcher as a teenager (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), the son of a shipbuilder who rebels against his father’s abuse and the prospect of spending his life in the yards. He takes off as a teenager, leaving behind the young woman he loves and vowing to come back for her. Which he does, kind of, when his father dies 15 years later and an older Gideon (Michael Esper) returns, furthered hardened by more than decade of drinking, whoring and sailing.
The plot follows two intertwined stories: One deals with the imminent closure of the shipyards and a local priest who concocts a wildly romantic, deeply impractical plan that will allow the ship builders to go out with a roar rather than whimper. The other strand follows Gideon’s relationship with Meg, the girl he left behind (Rachel Tucker, with hair like a flame and a voice and personality to match). During Gideon’s long absence, she’s born a son (Kelly-Sordelet), and become involved with one Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar, who brings a genuine, yearning ache to the show’s best love duet), a loving, handsome and practical fellow who – crucially – is no longer a shipbuilder but an employee of the salvage firm that plans to scrap the yard.
The love triangle is beautifully, if unevenly wrought. It’s tough to warm up to Gideon. The show would benefit from a more fully fleshed out character (and from giving him a song with the emotional freight that Lazar gets with the longing, achingly beautiful "What Say You Meg.") As he is, Gideon is dominated by surly defensiveness and weathered leather. You want to know more about his fractured relationship with his abusive father and far more about the root sadness that invariably fuels anger as potent as the ire Gideon brandishes like a club.
The scheme that Father Jimmy (Fred Applegate) sets in motion to save the pride of the builders also feels a bit haphazard. It involves a huge (and hugely expensive) symbolic gesture that would leave the woman folk on their own as the men set off on a journey that will yield no income. I kept wondering how the former ship builders were going to feed themselves while realizing Father Jimmy’s dream, and how the working women left behind were going to feel about being left behind to raise the kids and pay the rent on their own while their husbands and partners were off making their grand gesture.
But it’s not hard to forgive those not insubstantial shortcomings. Sting’s music is intricate, moody and singular. The title tune is electrifying, an anthem that speaks not just to shipbuilders but to anyone who ever found joy amid honest work. And you do not want to be late coming back from intermission: Led by Shawna M. Hamic, “Mrs. Dees’ Rant” is a rowdy, profane, infectious and utterly joyful ode to the perils of falling in love with a lad. Also outstanding is Jimmy Nail as the builders’ union leader. He has a sonorous voice that feels fathoms deep, and rolls through the theater with the power of an ocean swell.
The Last Ship also benefits tremendously from Hoggett’s choreography, which hits you in the gut in the best possible way. It’s gritty, pounding, rough and beautiful with a hefty current of raw sensuality propelling it throughout. And from shipyard to pub, David Zinn‘s set design is similarly powerful, a world of steel, water weathered wood. When the last ship finally sets off, you can practically feel the power of the vessel, thrumming in your heart.
The Last Ship continues through July 13th at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map), with performances Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays 2pm, 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays 2pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $33-$100, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheLastShip.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Joan Marcus
Fred Applegate (Father James O’Brien), Michael Esper (Gideon Fletcher), Aaron Lazar (Arthur Millburn), Collin Kelly-Sordelet (Young Gideon, Tom Dawson), Jimmy Nail (Jackie White), Rachel Tucker (Meg Dawson), Sally Ann Triplett (Peggy White), Craig Bennett (Billy Thompson), Dawn Cantwell (Young Meg), Rich Hebert (Adrian Sanders), Jamie Jackson (Joe Fletcher), C. David Johnson (Freddy Newlands), Matthew Stocke (Davy Harrison), Jeremy Davis (dance captain), Bradley Dean, Alyssa DiPalma, Colby Foytik, David Michael Garry, Timothy Gulan, Shawna M. Hamic, Leah M. Hocking, Todd A. Horman, Drew McVety, Gregory North, Jeremy Woodard (ensemble), Ethan Applegate, Sarah Hunt, Sean Jenness, Johnny Newcomb, Cullen R. Titmas (swing)
behind the scenes
Joe Mantello (director), Steven Hoggett (choreography), David Zinn (scenic design, costume design), Christopher Akerlind (lighting design), Brian Ronan (sound design), Rob Mathes (music supervisor, orchestrations, arrangements), Dean Sharenow (music coordinator), Karl Mansfield (synthesizer programming), Tom Ridgely (associate director), Patrick McCollum (asst. choreographer), Luc Verschueren (hair, wigs and makeup), Gregory Meeh (special effects), Telsey + Company (casting), Brian Lynch (production supervisor), Buist Bickley (props supervisor), Ben Furey (dialect coach), Ron Piretti (fight director), J. Philip Bassett (production stage manager), Amber White (stage manager), Eric Tysinger (asst. stage manager), Nick Blenkey (shipbuilding consultant), Baseline Theatrical (general management), Jeffrey Seller, Kathryn Schenker, Kevin McCollum, Sander Jacobs, James L. Nederlander, Roy Furman, Herb Alpert, Jerry Moss (co-producers), Joan Marcus (photos).
Dan Lipton (conductor, keyboards), Rob Mathes (drums), Bob Garrett (percussion), Joe Bonadio, Steve Roberts (guitars), Tom Mendel (bass), Matt Beck (pipes, flutes, whistles), Christopher Layer (melodeon), Mick McAuley, Martha McDonnell (fiddles), Mark Lekas (cello).