'The Last Ship' review: ravishing concert, improbable story
If sincerity and noble intentions were enough to make a good musical, "The Last Ship" would be a smash. If haunting folk-tinged melodies and choruses of rousing determination could float this boat, Sting's heartfelt debut musical would justify the years he devoted to the $14 million epic about a depressed English shipbuilding town very much like the one where he grew up.
Alas, "The Last Ship" is a ravishing concert with passionate singers buried in a monotonous, improbable story and surrounded by dark rusted metal with grim industrial scaffolds (by David Zinn).
The town of Wallsend, clearly a place where the sun never shines, has fallen on hard times since Japan and Korea started doing the job for less money. The yard is closed, the pub is packed and Gideon (the forcefully endearing Michael Esper), who escaped his tough father and tough future on a passing ship 15 years earlier, returns with an almost laughable belief that the girl he left behind will be right where he left her.
But grown-up Meg (the fine Rachel Tucker) has a 15-year-old son (Collin Kelly-Sordelet, who does impressive double-duty as the young Gideon). She also has a new man (the clarion-voiced Aaron Lazar), a good man perceived as a traitor for urging the unemployed workers to join the salvage company in wrecking the yard. The women, led by the spunky Sally Ann Triplett, are good ol' gals. And the men, led by the powerfully soulful Jimmy Nail as the yard foreman, are salt o' the earth tragic-figures choreographed by Steven Hoggett ("Once," "Rocky") with his increasingly familiar odd hand gestures and manly stomps.
The surprisingly conventional book (by John Logan and Brian Yorkey) provides a predictable romantic triangle and an unlikely quest in which the workers, urged on by the irreverent dying Irish priest (Fred Applegate and his fervent high baritone) to "occupy the yard" and build one last ship that would take them all to . . .
To where? Never mind that. In director Joe Mantello's spirited but doggedly repetitive production, such realistic details as real blow torches clash with what we assume is a metaphor about the human spirit and the sacred importance of work.
But, really, the important work is Sting's music, including a few pre-existing songs, plus duets with plaintive close harmonies, vibrant dance rhythms and torchy songs for the women that suggest early Kurt Weill. Unlike many other pop stars who try Broadway but only sound like themselves, Sting creates different voices for different characters. We hope he tries again.
WHAT "The Last Ship"
WHERE Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd St.
INFO $55-$137; 877-250-2929; thelastship.com
BOTTOM LINE More beautiful concert than show