REVIEW: Sting's 'The Last Ship' on Broadway

By Jon Sobel on Oct 30, 2014 09:17 AM EDT

The new musical The Last Ship, with music and lyrics by Sting and book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, is playing to packed houses early in its Broadway run. Ambitiously conceived and beautifully executed, it smoothly fuses the big drama and catchy music of old-fashioned musicals with a knowing modern sensibility and all the technical wizardry of 21st-century Broadway.

Alternately powerful and sweet, the score mingles Sting's trademark art-pop with golden-age balladry reminiscent of Rodgers and Hammerstein, along with a touch of the Celtic. There's a somewhat less successful fusion, too, with realistic working-class characters and situations evolving into a fantastical plot element that's key to the musical but is actually preposterous. Fortunately, the many charms of the show can sweep you past that.

Set and costume designer David Zinn creates a brash and brilliant fictionalized depiction of Sting's hometown of Wallsend, with the bulk of the show set in the local pub and the shipyard. In a prologue, teenage Gideon (Collin Kelly-Sordelet, gifted with a crystal-clear tenor) flees his violent father and the dead-end prospects in their shipyard town, leaving behind his girlfriend Meg (a Disney-Princess-ready Dawn Cantwell) for the life of a sailor. Fifteen years later, on his father's death, adult Gideon (a charismatic Michael Esper) returns for the funeral and to sell the family home – and to look up Meg (now played by Rachel Tucker), for whom he'd promised he'd return.

Having long since given up on Gideon, Meg has made a new life with Arthur (an effective Aaron Lazar), a townsman working for an industrialist set on turning the now-closed shipyard into a scrapyard with jobs promised for some of the former shipbuilders. She has a teenage son, Tom (the winning Kelly-Sordelet again). But, tellingly, she hasn't agreed to marry Arthur. Romantic complications ensue on Gideon's return, giving rise to some affecting love songs.

But it's the catchiest, most rollicking music that stayed in my head as I left, and the crafters of the show have very smartly featured it multiple times. The irresistible title track reprises more than once and closes the show too. And the rollicking "We've Got Now't Else," which crops up in both acts, is most welcome when it does.

Interspersed with the big production numbers, and cooling things down to a more intimate, personal tone, are some really nice set-piece numbers. Gideon and Tom bond while jailed together in the funny and clever "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance." Also delightful is the Act II opener in which zaftig publican Mrs. Dees (Shawna M. Hamic) bewails, then accepts, having married a shipbuilder.

With all the good music and crisp and inventive direction, it's really the excellent cast, by convincingly portraying "ordinary" folk, that makes the show work. Esper and Tucker both have fine if not extraordinary voices and bring a gritty solidity to their very imperfect characters. Sometime rocker Jimmy Nail brings powerful pipes and an arch, Daniel Day-Lewis-like presence to the role of former shipyard foreman Jackie White. Nail speaks/shouts many of his lyrics but then confounds expectations by singing out others in strong, glowing Broadway tones.

Sally Ann Triplett injects feminine sass as Jackie's wife Peggy, an attitude that's welcome because the lead female role of Meg, after her big, crowd-pleasing number rebuffing Gideon with the backing of the townswomen in the pub ("If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor"), becomes, the rest of the way, rather more passive than one would hope.

I was especially taken with the depths of humor and pathos Fred Applegate finds in the memorable character of Father Jim, the boozing, smoking, cancer-stricken local priest who urges the townsfolk toward their ultimate, preposterous endeavor.

All of that, plus grand sets, superb costumes and technical work, and only minor flaws, adds up to a sweeping, artfully told story with the scope and drama that the big Broadway musical has traditionally been all about. There's no need to be a fan of Sting or even familiar with his music to enjoy The Last Ship, one musical that should please tourists and locals alike.

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Tagssting, The Last Ship, broadway, Broadway Musical, Musical, musical theater

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