Despite its pedigree – with director Joe Mantello, writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey and choreographer Steven Hoggett all award-winners – I was prepared not to like “This Last Ship”, the musical heading for Broadway making its debut in the fall and running through July 13 at the Bank of America Theatre downtown.
The reason: I’m not a big fan of Sting, who wrote the music and lyrics and came up with the idea for the show.. His solo music is stuff you hear at parties held by a certain type of white people. Sure, it’s well made for what it is. So is Coldplay music. Same thing. Mannered. Boring. Pretentious. Good for the background while serving wine and a dish intended to impress.
A good number of people – particularly in the UK and Ireland – equate Sting with Bono in the biggest wanker left standing from the New Wave/Punk rock era. (Sting is in his 60s now, and I think he looks a bit like a space alien, with a big head and a thin body in clothing too tight for somebody his age.) But being a wanker doesn’t preclude making good music – sometimes.
Anyway, I went into the musical thinking it would be totally dull and full of itself because of the above.
Instead I found “The Last Ship” to be a cross between an old-fashioned musical like “Carousel” or maybe even “Fiddler on the Roof” mixed with a bit of the working class movies for which the English – and the Irish and the Scots – are known. If you like “Once” or “The Full Monty”, or “Brassed Off” or “Waking Ned Devine” or Bruce Springsteen you’ll like this musical.
Like “The Full Monty”, “The Last Ship” uses a grand gesture made by people left in the lurch by a shifting economy that’s leaving them behind to move along the story. Of course, in “The Full Monty” that meant a bunch of average guys working up the nerve to do a striptease to raise some cash, while the conceit for “The Last Ship” is workers left unemployed when their Wallsend shipyard closes deciding to build one more boat – on their own- then sail to other ports in similar straits.
Hey – it’s a musical.
What makes it work is that, aside from their crazy quest , the characters aren’t wacky but relatively normal people facing choices they wind up making with a bit of grace – which, the way most mass-consumed entertainment is written now, is refreshing.
There’s no villain in the piece – but for a changing world for which no one has been prepared to adapt and time itself.
Stop reading here if you don’t want a sort of synopsis.
See, the Thatcher-era plot involves man-child Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper), who took off first chance he got to set sail for anywhere but having to build ships for a living. He comes back home upon his father’s death 15 years later – and, of course, there were father-son issues, as a story like this pretty much requires. There’s scant mention of Mom, in fact.
Being a man-child Fletcher also pines after his old gal pal, Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker), who has a kid and a faithful beau – Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar) – with a steady job who wants to marry her. Millburn has taken an office job with the company scrapping the yard, which makes some townsfolk think he’s an asshole.
But he’s not. No character in this show is. And you can probably figure out who’s the daddy of Meg’s baby – and even that doesn’t bring operatic-style violence or stupid behavior.
The bright idea for building the ship comes from the town’s imported Irish priest, Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate). He’s not the fire and brimstone kind, but a drinking, smoking, live and let live kind of padre. And he’s dying.
So he comes up with the plan and the cash, with the money from diverting a church fund – which makes him seem so Chicago.
Not that it matters, but my guess is Applegate will win a Tony after this show hits New York. Applegate provides a good deal of the comic relief for the show and a bit of the pathos. He pretty much steals the show when he’s onstage – and he introduces the infectious title tune – which is reprised as a thread in the tale.
Jimmy Nail plays the shipyard foreman, Jackie White, who goes along with the goofy plan. He has a pretty Sting-like voice, which shouldn’t be surprising as they’re both Geordies.
Tucker will be making her Broadway debut – and probably get a Tony nod too – after being a star in London’s West End where she played Elphaba longer than anybody in Wicked. She’s a Celtic archetype here – redheaded, beautiful, and ultimately, sensible in what she decides to do when torn between two lovers.
The guys playing her boytoys are fine, if a little bland compared to the above three, who own the show. If anything the story could probably use another one or two female characters – and more depth for the male romantic leads, especially mopey Gideon.
The backup cast is top notch – not twinky Broadway types but built big like you probably would find in any Anglo working class town. And the Celtic-influenced choreography fits the body types. These aren’t feet of flames, but boots of stomping.
As far as songs go, a few are English and Celtic folk-tinged and more are typically Sting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this context.
The title tune sticks with you in a hummable way and works the way Rodgers and Hammerstein used to do with a melody that stuck and was repeated for effect throughout the show (see “Carousel” and “South Pacific” for example).
Other standouts include “The Night of the Pugilist” in which Fletcher teaches his son a lesson about boxing and romance and “It’s Not the Same Moon” which is about why you can’t and shouldn’t live in the past.
What didn’t work for me was Sting reworking one of his hits – “When We Dance” – into a number about the love triangle; and “Ghost Story”, which Fletcher sings at his father’s grave. The latter seemed way too much like a generic modern show tune, which is to say too much drum and American Idol-type overdramatics.
What stuck overall is that life is about choices, and a lot of time the heroic thing to do is not give into your emotions and hormones, but being reasonable – an adult even.
You can’t really go back home to where you left it and expect it to solve your problems. You can’t always get what you want, which might be bittersweet but ain’t such a bad thing.
And whatever the circumstance, the last ship sails for everybody – and the play has that sense of mortality, of raging against the dying of the light.
Sometimes all you can do is make a grand gesture.