The Last ShipPosted: November 5, 2014
I think you’ll find that everything about Sting’s new musical The Last Ship feels very epic (click here for highlights). They certainly spared no expense with their advertising. The stakes are quite high for this small, English seafaring town, but unfortunately, it didn’t resonate with me. I think this may be because the book is trying to cover too much ground. It’s like an odd mix of Billy Elliot and Kinky Boots (or any other musical that takes places in the United Kingdom) – take out the miners and replace them with ship builders, trade out a son running away from his pop’s shoe business, and this time around, make it about, ya know, ships.
Let me see if I can describe the plot briefly (loosely based on Sting’s childhood). Gideon Fletcher is a young boy who is expected to build ships with the rest of the men in town, but he sees a different future for himself. He ditches his injured, abusive father and his ship-building roots to explore the world instead. He also leaves behind his girlfriend Meg. Fifteen years later he returns, and due to the economic depression, the shipyards have closed down, and his ex is engaged. Will Gideon return to his roots? Will he embrace the shipbuilders’ cause? Will he win back his girl?
Even though it seems like the show is pulling from all of the plots we’ve seen before, it is a new score. I think Sting has become one of the more successful pop/rock stars to shift into the musical theatre genre. Like Cyndi Lauper (Tony-winning composer of Kinky Boots), he’s got his own thing going on and has written a lush, dark score with an actual arc (something Spiderman could have used). Several melodies were very catchy, although the songs that were stuck in my head afterward may have been due to the fact that they were reprised approximately 13 million times.
Alongside the solid score is a very cool set design and a strong cast. Rachel Tucker as Meg has a great voice and presence. Fred Applegate (her father and the town preacher) is reliable as always; he brings some of the much-needed humor to the piece. I like Michael Esper (Gideon), but it also took me till about halfway through the first act to start understanding whatever he was singing about. I could not get my ears to wrap around his accent. Collin Kelly-Sordelet brings a tough innocence to his performance as Tom Dawson, Meg’s 15-year-old son (hmmm, I WONDER who the father could be?).
Here are some of the reasons I had trouble with the story. One of the biggest plot points is that these men aren’t going to be allowed to build ships anymore. So they start a revolution and resolve to build one anyway – one last, this-is-gonna-be-the-best-ship-ever – but for what purpose I don’t know; it’s never made clear. Then, the protagonist’s big shift in the end of Act I which ultimately builds to the finale, didn’t do anything for me. His decision to all of a sudden go from completely indifferent to caring passionately about a cause came out of nowhere. Dramatically you need more of a believable transition to go along for that ride. There simply wasn’t time to spend on his character shift, much less the supporting characters. Most came across as one-dimensional, there only to serve one purpose. The love triangle also drove me crazy. It’s like it only exists because it’s expected in a musical. This guy returns after 15 years and starts making moves on the woman he left behind, leaving her conflicted as to whether she should stay with her long-term, kind, committed, hot (thank you, Aaron Lazar) boyfriend. Are we really supposed to be rooting for Gideon to win her back?
The book is trying to cover so many different things that it leaves us with majorly underdeveloped characters. They remain archetypes: the rebel, the scorned woman, the adamant ship-building guys, the wide-eyed boy, the sarcastic preacher who drinks, the dedicated boyfriend who is also apparently the guy in charge of keeping the shipyards closed down…I didn’t really understand that part.
Despite a talented cast, haunting score, and exciting design, The Last Ship’s story will unfortunately leave you out to sea.
The Last Ship
Music by Sting, Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, Directed by Joe Mantello
Neil Simon Theatre, Closing January 24th, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Fred Applegate, Jimmy Nail, and the cast of The Last Ship