The Last Ship
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd St.
New York, NY
Music and Lyrics by Sting
Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey
Directed by Joe Mantello
The Last Ship is a powerful, spectacularly inspiring, yet haunting tale of a community struggling to come to grips with the slow death of an industry that has been the backbone of its culture, defining its identity, for generations. It’s a tale of goodbyes and endings, of hopes and new beginnings, of grappling with the past and finding a way to move on that’s both respectful and honest. And it tackles all these ideas within the framework of a Broadway extravaganza, delighting the eye while drawing the audience along in its musical current, sailing them deftly towards the Ship Yard’s final launch.
The music is amazing in its emotional potency, and Steven Hoggett’s choreography serves it well. You’re watching workingmen dance, not dancers portraying workingmen, and the result is a visceral, heart-pounding belief in the legitimacy and worth of what’s being built. This powerfully expressive, yet natural, movement persists outside the Ship Yard as well, and here I’ll point out Meg’s number, “If You Ever See Me Talking To A Sailor,” for special note. Rachel Tucker, (playing Meg Dawson), does an amazing job. Her smoldering anger and righteously simmering resentment at Gideon’s sudden return, (Michael Esper), are palpable both visually and vocally, and the way she clears the bar, prematurely snatching away half-filled cups to unsubtly kick patrons out, enhances the emotional energy of the number perfectly.
Especially effective is the use of memories, ghostly versions of earlier scenes co-existing with the present, haunting characters as they make decisions and encounter turning points in their personal journeys. These mirrored, and/or subtly altered, reenactments draw upon the massive, symbolic potential that is both music’s and theatre’s most powerful tool for cuing and recalling emotion.
Also beautifully executed was the use of Father O’Brien, (Fred Applegate), as a beloved, yet humorously irreverent, community rallying point. Like Gideon’s father, (a clever, but not-so subtle parallel of father figures), his absence is as powerful as his presence, affecting every aspect of the story, tempering every character’s relationships.
However, I will switch gears now from this fountain of glowing praise to a slightly more critical eye. Why? Because I love this show, and there’s nothing I like more than finding ways to make things I’m passionate about better. Here we go:
The first Act is so exquisitely crafted and articulate in its emotional journey that the lack of a similar level of clarity in the second Act becomes glaring. There’s no single, obvious item at fault here. It’s all detail and subtlety, (which Act I has in Spades), a myriad of tiny twists, possessing far more impact than their individual sizes would suggest. The musical highs and lows aren’t quite as differentiated. The emotional ideas within the songs are slightly muddied. Certain story arcs aren’t quite as well defined. Little things that strain credibility, which, taken alone, could be overlooked, but when compounded, pulled me out from time to time.
The ultimate resolution of the love triangle was one. Its final shift seemed sudden, at odds with the trajectory I’d been hurtling along until then, and as such, lost its emotional hold so that I was no longer empathizing with Meg at the end. Father O’Brien’s funeral was another. This scene had the potential to be hugely inspiring, but instead left me feeling a half-hearted hopefulness that didn’t fully support the renewed resolution that the community took from the event. (I suspect this was a musical confusion, which I’m not as good at diagnosing as visual cues.) What I CAN point specifically to here is that I found it entirely unbelievable that, given O’Brien’s reputation, only a single individual paid tribute by leaving a beer glass on the coffin. The beer, and O’Brien’s committed inebriation, were used beautifully in Act I. Litter that puppy with glasses. He’d have wanted it that way. Everyone would’ve known it.
Similarly, I spent the entire show associating the massive, metal walls that were the set’s permanent backdrop with ship hulls, and ship decks, and well… the community’s Last Ship. This is the theatre. That those walls are actually the gates keeping unfinished ships inside doesn’t matter. Why, it didn’t even occur to me until the last minutes of the show. As such I was very confused when the christening of the vessel didn’t remotely involve those walls, even peripherally. They have power. Use it. If they were literally dripping with the town’s hopes and dreams as they opened, they’d have floored me. And since I’m making wild suggestions, use lighting to paint Father O’Brien’s name across the hull as the christening occurs. It doesn’t have to stay there. As I said, this is the theatre. Things come and go all the time.
Luckily the backbone of the show, Gideon’s journey to find peace with his father’s memory, (and later to build a relationship with his son), was consistently clear throughout both acts. It instantly pulled me back in whenever I was jostled out.
All in all, The Last Ship is an amazing new musical from an extremely talented, (though not so new), composer. Despite my nitpicking at Act II, the show is beautifully crafted with a wonderfully moving, and entertaining, story. Watching it, it’s hard to believe Sting has never written a musical before. A masterful theatre debut. I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a Broadway experience!
I sincerely hope Sting continues to ply his trade in the theatre. This rock star has a talent for storytelling. Here’s to The Last Ship being the first of many!
Review by Christine Williamson