Regional Reviews: Chicago
The Last Ship
Working-class people in the north of England wondering what they'll do next when the industry that has supported their community and families for generations becomes irrelevant. Young people leaving their troubled communities for a brighter future elsewhere. And the ever-tenuous relationships between fathers and sons, whether those fathers are still with us or not. Are these themes of a) Billy Elliot, b) Kinky Boots, c) The Last Ship or d) all of the above? You know the answeryes, The Last Ship trods some familiar ground in its story of a shipbuilding town in North England just after the shipyard has closed for good. But it seems to actually be more connected to the people it depicts than the other musicals. Billy Elliot had some brilliant scenes of the striking coal miners, but it hedged its bets by also including some traditional musical theatre dazzle. And Kinky Boots, despite its inspiration from the real life story of a shoe factory that switched its product line from men's dress shoes to boots for cross-dressing men, is mostly a feel-good musical comedy. The Last Ship on the other hand, though it employs some rather familiar plot lines, is an affectionate memoir of Sting's northeast England home town, Wallsend. Despite a story that's improbable and contrived, the book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey creates characters who feel real, even if sentimentalized.
The Last Ship is a memory musical, to be sure. The brilliant sets by David Zinn are minimal, just like our recollections can be, but they're enough to suggest locales ranging from hillsides to a pub to the shipyard near Sting's boyhood home. He uses a variety of ladders and catwalks to suggest the shipyard and hillsides, along with some roll-on set pieces. Together with Christopher Akerlind's inventive lighting design, we're not only taken around the town but see the characters in limbo as if faintly remembered. Along with the gritty, realistic costumes also by Zinn there's an earthy, brownish hue to the visual design that grounds the story in a place where people do hard work and get dirty. If the characters as drawn by Sting, Logan and Yorkey seem a bit too goodthere's not a true villain in the lot, reallycan you blame him for remembering them that way?
The story the authors have devised to illustrate Sting's memories of the changes in Wallsend after the shipyard closed is centered on Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper), a man in his early thirties who became estranged from his injured, abusive father at age 16 or 17, leaving the town and his girlfriend Meg (Rachel Tucker) to become a merchant seaman. He returns to Wallsend for the first time 15 years later, after his father has died, to settle the estate. He also seeks to rekindle the flame with Meg, although he hasn't communicated with her in all those years. Meg is now a single mother of a 15-year-old boy (played by Collin Kelly-Sordelet, the same actor who plays young Gideon in the prologue) but involved with a businessman, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), and has no desire to welcome Gideon back. Meanwhile, the crusty village priest, Father O'Brien (Fred Applegate, in perhaps the first Tony Award contending performance of the season) urges the now unemployed men to build a last ship and sail it around to various ports in Great Britain as a final tribute to their work.
The shipbuilding plan briefly runs aground when the new owners of the yard lock out the men, but there's little doubt in the audience's mind that it'll eventually succeed. The roadblocks in their way are removed a bit too neatly, but that allows more time for the story to focus on the townspeople. Chief among them is former foreman Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), who still insists on dressing for work each day; his supportive wife Peggy (Sally Ann Triplett); and Arthur (Lazar), once a shipyard worker but now offering the men lower paying jobs in a salvage yard. Arthur's a decent sort, shown to be a good surrogate father to Meg's son Tom and kind to Meg, and certainly not a villain in the love triangle that develops after Gideon's return. A good share of the second act concerns the building of a father-son relationship between Gideon and Tom, who quickly figured out that Gideon is his birth father.
Logan and Yorkey's script doesn't entirely fit Sting's songs like a glove. There's a comedy number ("If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor") shortly after Meg sees Gideon for the first time in 15 years, in which she sings of her reasons for not welcoming him back. It seems the wrong tone and emotion for Meg just minutes after the man's surprise homecoming. Similarly, a charming "getting to know you" song ("The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance") between Gideon and Tom, sung while the two are in a jail cell, seems a little light-hearted for the circumstances. The bookwriters deliver some snappy dialogue, though. Father O'Brien is earthy, profane and utterly unpretentious, knowing exactly what's going on with his parishioners even when they themselves don't. The townspeople all have a wry sense of humor and director Joe Mantello guides them to perfect deadpan delivery of it. His cast plays each of the key moments with sensitivity, avoiding the excesses that could draw more attention to the plot contrivances. Though there's not any great suspense in how things will turn out, the time is spent in the good company of these likable characters.
At times, The Last Ship feels a more like a song cycle with a script fashioned around it than an honest-to-God original book musical, but the good news is that it's a song cycle by Sting. Sting's rich, soulful and melodic score sometimes evokes the feeling of English folk songs, and at other times jazz or 1980s pop. There are some rousing numbers, like "We've Got Now't Else," sung by Jackie and the men as they begin to build the ship, and "Show Some Respect," led by Peggy at a wake. These numbers are showcases for the distinctively masculine and muscular choreography of Steven Hoggett, who, as he did for American Idiot, Once and Rocky, has created dance steps that are connected to the way his characters would actually move. "It's Not the Same Moon," a love ballad sung by Gideon and Meg, is as good a Sting pop song as anyand Esper's singing voice has an uncanny resemblance to Sting's. The folk-influenced anthem "The Last Ship" movingly starts the plot thread of the ship's building in motion as well as providing an emotional first and second act finale. In total, it's a score of uncommon distinction and smart lyrics. The orchestrations by Rob Mathes, heaviest on keyboards and guitar but using winds and strings as well, provide a simple but lush accompaniment. It's an accessible, yet sophisticated scoreand a refreshing addition to the Broadway songbook, in the manner that Once was.
Not surprisingly, The Last Ship boasts a terrific cast. (Who's going to turn down Joe Mantello for a part in a new musical by Sting, John Logan and Brian Yorkey?) Michael Esper is a charismatic leading man and, as mentioned earlier, has the chops to be a vocal surrogate for the songwriter. His character is a bit underwritten. While we're told enough about his childhood and his reason for leaving the town, we don't really know much about the sort of man he's become (other than some items of his many sins while at sea in a boastful and funny confession to Father O'Brien). Accordingly, it's hard to root for him even though the story charts his journey from his late teens to father of a teenager. The writers could stand to flesh out his character before their announced Broadway debut this fall.
Rachel Tucker is a fiery, strong-willed Meg, with the ability to belt as well as croon. Aaron Lazar is in fine form as the decent Arthur, who's stayed by Meg's side through the years. Jimmy Nail and Sally Ann Triplett give funny and sensitive portrayals of the former foreman and his wife. As mentioned earlier, Fred Applegate is a standout as Father O'Brien. His no-nonsense priest gets all the best laugh lines, introduces the title song, and has an important duet with Meg in the second act. Collin Kelly-Sordelet, a young New Jerseyan who's studied at Julliard and will make his Broadway debut with this show, is a real charmer in the dual roles of young Gideon and Tom.
The Last Ship is a visually and aurally gorgeous production, with inventive stagecraft to match the ingenuity of Sting's score. Mantello has adeptly fashioned it as a big Broadway musical, but it's a piece that could someday work in more intimate settings as well. The plight of dispossessed workers in Britain seems poised to once again create some jobs in New York's theatre district.
The Last Ship will play the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, through July 13, 2014. For ticket information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the show, visit thelastship.com.