Sting has come to Broadway, as both composer of the new musical The Last Ship and, more recently, in an effort to improve the show's struggling box office numbers, one of its stars onstage. The show itself, while having some book and story flaws, ultimately emerges as an engrossing, touching musical, with an impressive and melodic score that serves the story and the characters. It is an often stirring tribute to the human spirit.
The musical, inspired by Sting's own experiences growing up, takes place in the streets and shipyard of Wallsend, in the northeast end of England. The town and its residents are having problems, as the shipyard has been closed down. For reasons that don't entirely make sense, the residents are inspired to build one last ship. The Last Ship deals with familiar themes: father/son relationships, an economically depressed town, the lure of the sea, and the idea of a community; these are real people whom the audience can care about, and the results are sincere, earnest, gritty, and noble.
Sting himself is a commanding presence as Jackie White, the shipyard foreman. His character is not the lead, but Sting makes the most of it and shows his theatrical skills. The lead character is Gideon Fletcher, who left his home town at the age of fifteen to go to sea and escape the town, then returns fifteen years later. Gideon had issues with his father, and also left behind a young girlfriend, Meg, who he still loves. Michael Esper, who plays Gideon, was out the night I saw the show, but his understudy, Jeremy Woodard, was excellent. Rachel Tucker is glowing as the now grown up woman he left behind; Fred Applegate provides some comic relief and a twinkle in his eye as the local priest, while Collin Kelly Sordelet is impressive as Tucker's teenage son.
The show juggles two, maybe even three, stories: a love triangle involving Gideon, Meg, and Meg's devoted lover, who wants to marry her; the story of the town and the efforts to build the ship; plus two different father/son relationships. None of them have maximum dramatic impact, but there is enough to make for compelling theater. More problematic is that the book has some holes when it comes to following through on some story points, and the entire concept of building the ship, perhaps meant to be allegorical, defies logic and is never all that believable. It requires some suspension of disbelief.
But, in spite of those issues, The Last Ship works, thanks in no small part to Sting's lovely score. It ranges from the beautiful ballad "What Say You, Meg" to the spirited "We've Got Now't Else," among a number of fine songs. Meg sings the pretty "August Winds," and the songs are legitimate theatrical songs that effectively advance the story and enhance the atmosphere. Many of the songs were on Sting's Last Ship concept album, and a few are older songs from his catalog. Joe Mantello provides often haunting, beautiful direction, including some stunning stage pictures, particularly at the conclusion of each act. Steven Hoggett's choreography is appropriate for the characters and the setting and works well.
Sting remains in the show until January 24, and box office numbers improved considerably in his first week. Hopefully, that can remain the case both through his run and beyond, as The Last Ship is an entertaining, worthy, and well done new musical. It may not be perfect, but it tells its story with poignancy, emotion, and heart, resulting in an ultimately uplifting and satisfying evening of theater. - James Miller
The Last Ship is at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street in Manhattan.
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.