The problem with the show is the book by first time librettist John Logan (Red, Never the Sinner) and Brian Yorkey (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for the musical Next to Normal) which leaves plot points undeveloped, characters on the one dimensional level and an ending which leaves much unresolved. What the show is best at is creating a sense of community among the men who work in the shipyards and the women in their lives who back them up. The choreographed movement by Steven Hoggett (Once, Rocky and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) has knit the large cast of 30 into a cohesive whole with its muscular routines. Director Joe Mantello who has directed such serious musicals in the past as Assassins, Pal Joey, Dogfight, and A Man of No Importance has accomplished robust and hearty work with his cast, but he is less successful with the problems of the book. This is a show you want to like despite its obvious deficiencies.
The Last Ship tells the story of Gideon Fletcher, the son of an abusive ship builder, who leaves town at 15 to make his way in the world, leaving behind his girlfriend Meg Dawson to whom he promises to return. He does not want to end up in the shipyards like his father. Gideon (played as an adult by Michael Esper) does not come back to Wallsend until 15 years later when he receives news that his father has died. He finds that the shipyards have closed putting all the men out of work – which he thinks has nothing to do with him. However, when he tries to be reunited with Meg (played as an adult by British actress Rachel Tucker) he discovers that she has a son Tom and a new boyfriend, Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar), who works for the new owners who are planning to use the yards for salvage. What he soon is informed that Tom is his son and that with the help of Father O’Brien, the men are planning a work-in to build one last ship even though the owners have threatened to arrest them. The two discrete story lines eventually become one about halfway through the show in an uneasy merging of plots.
The holes in the book are ones that you wonder about throughout the show taking your mind off the action on stage: What do the men plan to do with the ship they are building since no shipyard has commissioned it? Why don’t the men get arrested for trespassing when it is made very clear that the new owners will not countenance a work-in? Aside from being a sailor for 15 years, what kept Gideon away so long? How long have Meg and Aaron been a couple and what has she told both Tom and Aaron about Tom’s absent father? The musical is unrelentingly gloomy with no comic relief, a hallmark of Yorkey’s books for Next to Normal and If/Then. These and other unresolved questions stand in the way of perceiving The Last Ship as a completely successful show.
While Esper, Tucker and Lazar may be wonderful actors, the book does not give them much room to breathe. Esper’s Gideon is an unsympathetic hero, irresponsible and reckless, and we don’t particularly root for Meg and him to be reunited. Meg’s other choice Arthur is a solid, upstanding citizen who loves her devotedly but as written he is as dull and bland as proverbial dishwater. Meg is simply in a quandary over whether she loves the defiant Gideon or the loyal Arthur: should she go back to her childhood love after 15 years or remain with the solid and steady man who has been there for her. There is no more to her character that her dilemma.
Ironically, the minor characters run off with the show. Fred Applegate makes Father O’Brien, the parish priest for the shipbuilders, irascible, incorrigible and feisty. Golden Globe-nominated British singer-songwriter Jimmy Nail as foreman Jackie White is pugnacious, vibrant and compelling. His wife Peggy played by Sally Ann Triplett and Shawna M. Hamic’s Mrs. Dees who she works for in the local pub are both gutsy, free-spirited women. As Gideon’s father Joe in the flashback scenes, Jamie Jackson shows us where Gideon got his anger and his mettle.
Sting’s score (both words and music) includes songs from his The Soul Cages, Fields of Dreams and The Last Ship albums plus a great deal of new material leading to 20 musical numbers plus three reprises of the title song which is used in multiple ways. The most effective songs in the story line are the rousing choral numbers: “Islands of Souls,” “Shipyard,” “We’ve Got Now’t Else,” “The Last Ship,” “Hymn,” “Show Some Respect” and “Underground River” in the vigorous staging which includes Hoggett’s authentic-looking dance numbers. The love ballads contribute lovely melodies. The excellent music direction, orchestrations and arrangements are by longtime Sting associate, Rob Mathes. However, the choral numbers plus the quieter songs are undermined by the poor sound design by Brian Ronan as well as the thick North England accents which are difficult to catch for the American ear.
The production team has worked long and hard on authentic atmosphere but the look of the show is not attractive. David Zinn’s cold setting with its scaffolding and mechanical equipment only vaguely suggests a shipyard, while the more intimate scenes (the pub, the church, the jail) look sketchy and spare. His costumes are unquestionably right for these characters but they too are dark and drab. Everyone seems to dress as though for the last winter, not just the building of the last ship. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting is similarly gloomy without creating any memorable moments.
The Last Ship is worth seeing as a new Sting concert with a rich emotional score wonderfully sung by the large cast. Dramatically, the new musical leaves much to be desired as it tries to tell two parallel stories of life in Northern England. While the plot is engrossing, one feels that too much connective tissue has been omitted.
The Last Ship (through January 25, 2015)
Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit http://www.thelastship.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission