Review: “The Last Ship”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
When: through July 13
Tickets: $33-$100
Phone: 800-775-2000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The pre-Broadway world premiere of “The Last Ship” has moored at the Bank of America Theatre briefly before chugging off to New York in the fall, and although the musical’s engines aren’t all firing equally, there’s a lot to recommend.

The biggest assets, and most ballyhooed, are the words and music by rock star Sting. The show is based on his experiences growing up in the gritty port town of Wallsend in northeastern England, and he’s crafted a song cycle that artfully blends Celtic melodies, pop tunes, rock rhythms, echoes of Kurt Weill, shades of Paul Simon (who was in the opening night audience, along with James Taylor and other luminaries) and a whole lot more. While some of the numbers are simply beautiful on their own — notably the love songs “What Say You, Meg” and “When We Dance” —virtually all of them, from the rousing title anthem to the quiet “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance,” further the narrative and flesh out the details.

That narrative, a book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, weaves together two threads: the personal story of Sting alter ego Gideon Fletcher and the plight of Wallsend’s tight-knit community once the shipyards have shut down and been purchased by a scrap merchant.

An angry young man determined not to follow in his abusive ship-building father’s footsteps, Gideon heads out of town to become a sailor, promising to return to his girlfriend, Meg Dawson. He doesn’t make it back for 15 years, by which time Meg (fiery Rachel Tucker) has a new love, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), who wants to marry her, has bought a plot of land to build them a house and has been taking care of the son, Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), Gideon didn’t know he had.

Like Gideon (Michael Esper), Arthur has become a bit of an outsider, because he works for the shipyard’s buyer, which puts him at odds with the unemployed builders led by foreman Jackie White (Jimmy Nail). At the urging of the delightfully irreverent dying priest, Father O’Brien (scene-stealing Fred Applegate), who wants to be buried at sea, they’re convinced to build one last ship to sail around to other dying ports to show their resilience and pride in their trade. Naturally, Gideon gets caught up in their cause, simultaneously confronting his feelings about his dead dad, the intricacies of the love triangle and the challenges of being a better father than his own.

The main problem is that the story is a collection of cliches and predictable set pieces. We don’t know exactly when the action is supposed to be taking place, and the idea seems to be to combine the specific and the symbolic. But if you look closely at the plot, it’s full of logical holes and raises more questions than it answers, starting with what exactly Gideon was doing in the 15 years he was away. (There should be a song about this). Why didn’t he return for his father’s funeral? Why didn’t he ever write to Meg if, as he claims, he thought about her every day? Without more of a backstory, he comes across as a cad, and not a charming enough one to be worth Meg’s attention even if she feels the tug of their romantic history, something else we don’t see enough of.

The justification for building the ship isn’t established well, either, especially since there’s no client to pay for it, everyone is very poor and going around the world to other woebegone ports is a pretty lame idea, morale booster or not. This is where the symbolic element most comes into play, I guess. But the message is rather confusing, given the finale. Does the ship represent hope in the face of almost insurmountable odds? Or is it, like so many boats before, a ship of death carrying the remnants of a dying way of life — and a dead priest, after all — out to sea, never to return? One can only hope the answer isn’t the latter, because in that case, Meg’s last-minute decision to let Tom go with his birth father on the voyage turns this into an unmitigated tragedy.

There are other reasons the ending would be stronger if Meg didn’t let Tom go, and the way she does it is one of those groan-worthy emotional-button-pushing moments. The evening has lots of them, but generally Joe Mantello’s savvy direction and the accomplished cast gloss over the worst. Steven Hoggett does a good job of making the choreography look like it arises naturally from the activities of these working-class men and women whether they’re at the shipyard or the pub, no easy task. He could cut back a little on the foot stomping, however, and maybe come up with more variety of movement.

The staging in general is impressive, thanks to David Zinn’s scenic design and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting. The complex set has lots of moving parts, and they already are moving effectively. If I were taking notes for the director, I’d point out a couple of little things — for example, in one scene Tom and Meg “go home” from the pub by ascending a downstage staircase, while in another Meg asks Arthur to take Tom home from the pub, and they exit upstage center — but they’re easily fixed.

What’s not so simple is reworking the script so it’s less formulaic and developing the characters enough that we care about them. ‘The Last Ship” is a heartfelt, sincere look at tough times for tough people in a tough place, but if it’s to have smooth sailing in the Big Apple, audiences have to buy into their reality.