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'The Last Ship' review: Sting elevates show he wrote

Musician/playwright Sting attends the curtain call at a

Musician/playwright Sting attends the curtain call at a performance of "The Last Ship" at Neil Simon Theatre in Manhattan on Dec. 9, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Stephen Lovekin

Every breath he takes, every move he makes, Broadway's watching Sting.

And he deserves to be watched.

With his first musical, the heartfelt but dreary "The Last Ship," sinking at the box office after its Oct. 26 opening, the pop star has joined the company through Jan. 24. Since attendance went up 18 percent after just a week in the $14 million epic, this appears to be a smart move.

But it is far more than a stunt. Sting is doing something extraordinary. He is galvanizing the show, a working-class folk fable about a depressed English shipbuilding town very much like the one where he grew up.

His belief in his own words and music has invigorated what was already a strong cast. He is infusing light and passion into director Joe Mantello's grim industrial production, almost making the deeply improbable story seem like a quixotic metaphor for impossible dreams.

This is the definition of star quality. Although he plays a secondary character (the yard foreman formerly well played by Jimmy Nail), Sting pulls the stage together without ever upstaging the others. True, he doesn't join in the barroom stomping dances and, by not getting dirty in the second act when the ship is being built, he looks dapper enough to be a visiting squire.

But never mind. With his distinctive voice and poetic soul, the score -- already the best thing about the show -- has a thematic unity beyond the haunting individual melodies, the plaintive close harmonies, the mambos and waltzes and harsh dance rhythms.

There has been something touching about Sting's endless willingness to promote this peculiar, old-fashioned, romantic show. The dialogue still amounts to exhortations with exclamation points ("Where does a man find dignity without work!" "Occupy the yards!"). But his faith in these actors -- including Michael Esper as the prodigal son, Rachel Tucker as the girl he left behind 15 years earlier and Fred Applegate as the shrewd but lovable priest -- has paid off in a real company.

The plot is still pretty silly and the tone can get monotonous. But the overlapping triangles -- a son with two fathers, a woman with two lovers, the wives competing with the sea for their men -- has clarity now. Defiant characters, and the actors who play them, sing "We won't give up our life here in the shipyard." As long as Sting stays, I suspect they won't have to go.

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