My awesome boyfriend Rick managed to get tickets to see Sting’s new musical The Last Ship on Broadway as part of my birthday festivities. It was the second preview, and previews are sometimes rough as the actors, techs, and designers attempt to get all the moving pieces of a show up and running (seriously, I’ve seen previews that were absolute train wrecks). However, by intermission it was clear that wasn’t the case for The Last Ship. I was enthralled. I sent my editor at What’cha Reading (Chuck) an email that basically said “I know we generally don’t review Broadway, and I know that the only connection to geekdom that Sting has is wearing a leather boomerang bikini in Dune, but could I please review this?” Chuck, bless him, wrote back immediately and said “Go for it.”
I’ve been following the progress of The Last Ship for what seems like a very long time. I bought the album last year, but Sting had been working on the musical and its songs for a year before that—the album was basically the excerpts from that process. It’s a collection of songs inspired by Sting’s experiences in the shipbuilding community of Wallsend in the north of England, where he was born and raised. He left the area when he was still in his twenties, determined that he was not going to get sucked into the working-class life he saw around him. (If this sounds familiar, it is—Sting’s childhood and family have formed the background of a lot of his work, including 1991’s Soul Cages album, his 2003 biography Broken Music, and Police songs like “Dead End Job.” It’s a recurrent theme, to say the least.) Unlike his previous works, however, these songs were always meant as part of a musical, and a musical that had many voices from a large cast.
Shortly after the album’s release a PBS special was filmed at The Public Theater where Sting performed songs from the musical and explained how some of the songs had changed during the development process, then a limited run in Chicago this summer, and now Broadway. The interesting thing about having the material in the public eye for this long is that when I saw it on Tuesday night, audience members were talking about favorite songs from the album that had not made it into the musical, and the surprise of finding old favorite songs taking their place (songs from Brand New Day and Fields of Gold made it onstage as well as a couple from Soul Cages, with lyrics tweaked to fit the story being told). It was if we had been on the journey with the production team, even though we hadn’t seen the finished product. I’ve worked on a number of new plays over the years and have experienced the transition a play takes on the road to production. I appreciated that the audience got to share some of that experience with The Last Ship.
So where exactly did this long road lead to Tuesday night? At its heart, The Last Ship is the story of a love triangle between a man, who left his hometown as soon as he could escape (Gideon Fletcher, played by Michael Esper), the woman who loved him when they were teenagers (Meg Dawson, played by Rachel Tucker), and the man who has loved her since Gideon left (Arthur Millburn, played by Aaron Lazar). This is not a groundbreaking story by any means; we have seen it before and unfortunately it’s not as engaging as I’m sure the creative team hoped. It’s not entirely predictable, but it’s not a burning romantic love story. Apparently there have been some script changes since the Chicago production to make Gideon more likable, which is good, but the shining moments in this show aren’t between the leads, they’re in the ensemble scenes.
The ensemble was my favorite part of The Last Ship. Nearly thirty actors made up the citizens of the town of Wallsend and the cast made me believe that I was in a town that was struggling with the death of its main industry and what that means for all of them. I grew up in Pittsburgh in the Rust Belt era, and Wallsend’s plight felt real to me. There were some standout characters in the ensemble as well; I particularly loved Father O’Brien (played by Fred Applegate) and Jackie White (played by Jimmy Nail), and came away remembering more of their scenes than Gideon’s/Meg’s/Arthur’s.
The Broadway message boards (oh yes, my fellow geeks, the theater community has them too) have slagged The Last Ship, saying that it’s dreary and that the main conceit of the show (that somehow the townspeople manage to get enough money and materials to make one last ship) has some plot holes, but I don’t share these concerns. This is not a happy musical, but it had a dark sense of humor that I enjoyed. I also understand that this is the theater, and thus not always realistic. Many of the songs Sting has written over the years are metaphorical (he was an English teacher when he was younger, for FSM’s sake) and I think The Last Ship is in that camp. Willing suspension of disbelief, dammit. More problematic to me is that while there is a decent female presence in the show and the women have some good musical numbers, they don’t feel like a cohesive part of the story—more like someone said “We should really have more with the women, Sting, write us another song.” The same is true of the songs that have been Top 40 hits—they feel a little tacked on, possibly because some lyrics were rewritten to fit the story. For instance, “Island of Souls” delivers Gideon’s and Meg’s backstory but seems to take about eight years to tell; a slow start to a somewhat rambling first act.
All this being said, The Last Ship is still in previews and there is time to tighten everything up (here is where a dramaturg would be helpful, creative team). But even with these issues, my attention never wandered and I was engaged throughout the entire performance. It’s a good show, a darker version of the industrial musical we’ve seen on Broadway before (Billy Elliot, The Full Monty, Kinky Boots), and I’ll be going to see it again once it gets through previews. I give it 4 out of 5 Lightning Bolts.