I sure liked The Last Ship a helluva lot better than I thought I would. I’m not an enormous fan of musicals penned by rock composers, because bereft of training and experience—and an innate theatrical sensibility—rock composers are almost always trying to play a hopeless game of craft-catchup; they rarely know what to dramatize in song, they have no clue about subtext, they frequently only understand the primary colors of songs that have a back beat, they default to clichés and can’t really deliver the pastel shadings of complex or nuanced emotion. But every now and again, you get someone from the pop world who was weaned on musicals—a Rupert Holmes, a David Yazbek, someone who, to an acceptable-to-brilliant degree, has the mojo in his bones. And it would seem that composer-lyricist Sting has it, enough to float his show (pun intended) and to get better and better at it, if he so desires. Though some are not surprised; I am told that in the pop pantheon, Sting is one of the great storytellers. And indeed, his very tuneful and muscular songs also skillfully carry a good portion of story. I wish he would correct the odd false rhyme—if you’re that good out of the gate, there’s no excuse for passing carelessness—but all right, leave that for the next show. Which I hope he writes.
This show is struggling at the box office, though, and I think, ironically, the book may be part of the problem. I’ll get to why in a minute.
Set in the northeast of England, in the streets and shipyard of Wallsend, the story is about one of the town’s “prodigal sons,” Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper) who went off and away to escape the ship building life and the abuse of his now-late father, seen in flashbacks (Jamie Jackson), the last of many generations of ship-builders. Gideon has come back to claim Meg (Rachel Tucker) the lady-love to whom he promised to return, but of course in 15 years she has moved onto another, Arthur (Aaron Lazar)…with her teenage son Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), who is, of course, Gideon’s son too. All this against a turbulent backdrop because the shipyard is being sold and dismantled, and all those artisans of the trade will soon be out of work. The emotional and spiritual traffic management of all these threads is seen to by the heard-swearin’ Irish priest, Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate). Emerging out of the melee comes a romantic triangle, a tussle for the loyalty of the teenage boy and a hare-brained scheme to build one last ship before the yard is shuttered forever.
Now I’ll say this much for the libretto by John Logan and Brian Yorkey: it does something very difficult to do in a musical: deliver a potboiler of a story with several sub-plots and a number of lead characters (Gideon is the nominal center, but he doesn’t drive the story by himself and he’s not particularly larger-than-life) and keep it all clear without narrative sprawl. In part because everybody’s concerned with the same endgame—whether or not, and eventually when and how, that last ship will get built. (Albeit very differently, it’s the A Chorus Line trick. An ensemble functions as a collective main character because most of them want the same thing, and the ones that don’t, want to stop it.)
But it falters in two important areas—first, while the dialogue is witty and the characterization sound, which are saving graces, it simply plays out familiar potboiler tropes. There’s not a plot turn or a character arc or a relationship that has a fresh reversal or an unexpected irony. Not if you Know how these stories are typically structured. (The most strikingly colorful element is the personality of the priest; he’s arguably the larger-than-life character, but the show isn’t about him.) Second, there’s the “McGuffin,” the renegade building of the last ship itself. It’s never properly explained how it gets financed. There’s some reference made to church funds as “re-directed” by the priest, but it seems unlikely that his coffers have what it takes for manpower and material. It’s a plot-point that has bewildered virtually everyone I’ve asked about it, and if you’re thinking about something that crucial, something that doesn’t need much beyond a few unambiguous lines for clarification—and a potboiler, especially, cries out for clarity—it’s a distraction that pulls focus and compromises verisimilitude.
I wonder, though, if any of that can be considered crippling, in the face of the show being delivered with such spirit, craft and style.
No one has a crystal ball about these things and when a musical that should be attracting a larger audience isn’t, all you can do is theorize. Especially when there’s the typically sharp direction of Joe Mantello, fine choreography by Steven Hoggett and a kickass design team (special mention to David Zinn for sets and costumes) giving it blood, breadth and scope.
But it may yet have enough momentum to catch on. Here’s hoping The Last Ship isn’t near the last leg of its maiden voyage…