Thursday, November 13, 2014

‘The Last Ship’: Sting’s Loving Tribute to the Shipbuilders of His Home Town Is a Theatrical Treasure








No bones about it.  The new musical The Last Ship—with music and lyrics by acclaimed singer/songwriter Sting—is a stellar achievement, a powerful and deeply moving story of human frailties and strengths, of love, honor, duty, and determination, that is both down-to-earth direct and mythic in its themes, and that offers up a richly layered score and performances that do honor to the two sides.

On one level, The Last Ship, with book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, deals with some of the same kinds of issues as did Billy Elliot and The Full Monty—the plight of working class Brits hit with a crushing economic downturn that has stripped them of their livelihood, their dignity, and an entire way of life that had been passed along from generation to generation. 

For this part of the story, the show tells the tale of a group of shipbuilders whose world is turned upside-down when the shipyard is closed forever, and the only work open to them is in the scrap industry.  If they accept, they will be forced to tear down what they have taken pride in building up for their entire lives, with skills taught by fathers to their sons and through the time honored system of apprenticeships. 

A goodly portion of The Last Ship is devoted to the story of these men and how, with the support of the women in their lives and of the parish priest Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), they set themselves to the task of building one last ship that they will sail out of Wallsend (a real place in northeastern England which happens to have been the childhood home of Sting).

But there is another story that is being told, a modern day version of the myth of Odysseus as he is reunited with Penelope and their son Telemachus. Here our Odysseus is named Gideon (Michael Esper). He has returned to Wallsend after running off as a young man 15 years earlier to escape his abusive father and a predetermined life as a shipbuilder. In his rush to freedom, he left behind not only the hated part of his former life but also the love of his life, Meg (Rachel Tucker), whom he vowed to return to. 

After spending many years as a merchant seaman, Gabriel has come home to tend to his father’s affairs after the old man’s death, as well as to see how things stand with Meg.  He learns that Meg has a 15-year-old son, Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet, who also plays Gabriel as a young man against Dawn Cantwell’s Young Meg). In the ensuing years, Meg has gotten on with her life and is now in a long-term relationship with Arthur (Aaron Lazar). Arthur loves both Meg and Tom and longs for the three of them to settle down permanently together. Then in walks Gabriel. 

Because all of these folks have led hard knock lives even in the best of times, they are not given to the kind of histrionics that would turn The Last Ship into a manipulative sob fest. Meg genuinely does not know her own heart. Arthur loves her enough to give her room to work things out. Tom accepts Gabriel as his biological parent without going all to pieces over it. The shipbuilders set aside their personal grievances to find common cause. Gabriel struggles to see if this homecoming will lead anywhere. This is what makes The Last Ship work so effectively, and why an audience is likely to be pulled in emotionally. These are likeable people.  We grow to care about them. 

Sting has done a masterful job, providing songs that fit in so beautifully with the characters and that underscore the unfolding of events.  The music encompasses Celtic sea shanties, ballads, a lovely waltz, a raucous pub tune, and even, astonishingly, a piece that sounds like a Kurt Weill cabaret number. 

Without exception, the performances are first rate. You can almost hear Sting’s voice whenever Michael Esper starts to sing, and Rachel Tucker’s Meg owns the stage whenever she’s on it.  As Father O’Brien, Fred Applegate has been able to absorb the clichés associated with the appearance of an Irish priest in a musical and makes the character completely human. Steven Hoggett’s choreography, David Zinn’s set design, the orchestra under Rob Mathes’s baton (do yourself a favor and stay for the performance of the entire exit music), all under Joe Mantello’s fine direction, make for an evening with a musical that has been crafted with love, in much the same way as the shipbuilders build their own last ship. 

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