The Last Ship, the first Broadway musical from rock star Sting, has plenty going for it. The story, about the workers in an English seafaring town who occupy their recently closed shipyard to build one last vessel, has a lot of working-class authenticity and autobiographical cred — based, as it is, on Sting’s own experiences growing up in the northeast England port city of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Sting has written some excellent, evocative songs — many of them delivered by a brawny, foot-stomping baritone chorus, with earthy, less-is-more choreography by the talented Steven Hoggett. The Broadway production, directed by Joe Mantello, is polished and well cast, serious and occasionally stirring.
All that’s missing is the ship.
It’s probably unfair to point out that a stage musical can’t capture the realism of a movie. But The Last Ship is so reminiscent of those British indie films about gritty working-class folks in dreary north-country industrial towns — some of which have been turned into decent musicals (Billy Elliot, The Full Monty) — that you can’t help feeling something is missing. This may be the first Broadway musical that pales in comparison to the movie it wasn’t based on.
The story is a fond tribute to the proud English shipbuilders who were thrown out of work by globalism, Thatcherism and the sheer march of progress. Yet the show doesn’t have much social-political context, nor dramatic tension. The decision to close the shipyard is made at the very start, and the confrontation between management and labor is muted and pretty much forgotten midway through. It’s not even clear just what this quixotic project is meant to accomplish, beyond a symbolic demonstration of the men’s work ethic and skills that are no longer in demand.
On screen, the sight of the ship gradually coming into hulking being would have provided a concrete focus for the drama, or at least a sense of forward motion toward a visible, if ultimately futile, conclusion. Here, the whole project takes place offstage, and no one has come up with a visual metaphor or imaginative staging idea to represent it in theatrical terms.
Instead, the book (by Brian Yorkey and John Logan) fills out the two and a half hours with a boilerplate story about a prodigal son, Gideon (Michael Esper), who returns home after a 15-year absence, the girlfriend (Rachel Tucker) he left behind, and the son (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) she has raised and who turns out, naturally, to be Gideon’s. There’s a standard collection of colorful locals and gruff working men (among them the lean and weathered Jimmy Nail as the foreman who leads the construction project), as well as a kind-hearted, cutely profane parish priest (Fred Applegate) straight from central casting — for some Irish film, apparently.
The show’s uncontrovertible high point is Sting’s vigorous and lyrical score — maybe the best from a major rock artist to come to Broadway. (Bono and The Edge’s songs for Spider-Man, in comparison, sound slick and inconsequential). There are yearning, romantic love ballads; hearty workers’ anthems with echoes of sea chanteys, Irish folk music and The Threepenny Opera;and a touch of Broadway pizzazz, to keep the old folks who predate the Police happy.
Yet the score is not really enhanced by the show surrounding it. A concert version of songs from The Last Ship (including several that were cut from the show) that Sting delivered at New York’s Public Theatre last year is actually more powerful, personal and genuinely moving than the fully staged musical. PBS aired it on Great Performances early this year (http://video.pbs.org/video/2365183664); give a listen to a terrific song cycle that, unfortunately, falls a little short as a Broadway show.
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