Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Not Quite Seaworthy, But Some Beautiful Craftsmanship

Review: The Last Ship

Sting (center) joins the cast of his own musical The Last Ship for the show's final weeks.

Going into the fall of 2014, The Last Ship seemed poised to be one of the big shows of the upcoming Broadway season. The only new musical to open between the months of September and December, the show promised a score by Grammy winner and recent Kennedy Center Honoree Sting, a book by Tony winners John Logan and Brian Yorkey, and direction by the great Joe Mantello (also a Tony winner). But despite a high profile creative team and a complete lack of competition, the show has struggled at the box office and will play its final performance on January 24th. You can blame the lack of name stars or an audience distaste for serious musicals, but at the end of the day The Last Ship's box office woes probably stem from the fact that despite being lovingly crafted and at times starkly beautiful, the show just doesn't have a particularly engaging story to tell.

Set in a small seaside village in northern England, The Last Ship opens with young Gideon Fletcher leaving town rather than follow in his father's footsteps as a shipbuilder. Gideon promises his tearful girlfriend Meg Dawson he'll come back for her, once he's seen the world and sown his wild oats. Cut to 15 years later, when a now grown Gideon finally returns home to attend his father's funeral. What he finds is a town on the verge of collapse, as the shipyard which employs most of the local men has been purchased and will soon close. While the men rally together to build one last ship, Gideon does his best to pick up the pieces of his relationship with Meg, who now has a son and is set to marry another man.

The above setup contains all the elements needed for a dramatic story, but bookwriters John Logan and Brian Yorkey can't seem to decide where the show's primary focus should be. In trying to split time equally between the shipyard drama and the Gideon/Meg romance, both storylines feel underserviced and therefore lack the emotional punch they could have. Both plots also suffer from a lack of dramatic tension, with their eventual outcomes heavily foreshadowed by both the writing and simple logic. The romance is especially problematic, as the show fails to provide any compelling reason for Meg to take Gideon back after he broke her heart. Gideon makes for an exceedingly selfish protagonist; he admits to having spent the past 15 years with a variety of women, but cannot comprehend why Meg isn't waiting with open arms when he finally gets around to returning. We never see them as a happy couple, and as Meg's overriding reaction to Gideon's return is a completely understandable "screw you," it's difficult to root for their reunion.

Sting's folk-influenced score does a much better job than the book scenes of conveying believable emotional complexity, and makes for a very respectable Broadway songwriting debut. Like much of his more recent recording output, the subtle intricacies of Sting's score appear underwhelming on first listen, but as the evening goes on the smartly used reprises and melodic motifs reveal hidden nuances and previously unnoticed pleasures. Sting does a better job than most recording artists of bending his personal style to the needs of dramatic storytelling, although he doesn't entirely avoid the temptation to have the story serve the music instead of the other way around. His score reaches its zenith giving voice to the working class shipwrights in the group numbers, making full use of the cast's lush voices with layered harmonies and inventive call and response. The title song is especially haunting, and both the score and Rob Mathes' orchestrations do an excellent job of evoking the feel of a small seaside town.

As per usual, Joe Mantello's focused direction coaxes fine performances out of his entire cast. Michael Esper almost manages to make the often insufferable Gideon a likeable protagonist, even with a script that rarely allows him the opportunity to show his much discussed love for Meg. Rachel Tucker is excellent as the object of Gideon's affection, anchoring the love triangle with a believable emotional complexity. The golden-voiced Aaron Lazar does what he can with the utterly thankless role of Meg's new boyfriend Arthur, and the nimble Collin Kelly-Sordelet is continually appealing as Meg's son, Tom. Fred Applegate's immensely enjoyable turn as the town priest is the most accomplished and engaging performance in the show, and Sting himself - taking over for original cast member Jimmy Nail - does quite well in the role of shipyard captain Jackie White. (Sidenote: Sting's casting is one of the smartest uses of a celebrity replacement in several seasons, showcasing the rock star enough that fans will get their money's worth without actually involving him in the show's emotional heavy lifting.)

The show's production design is purposefully dark and industrial, perfectly conveying the decline and disrepair of the setting. There is a fading beauty in David Zinn's sets and costumes which is greatly enhanced by Christopher Akerlind's dramatic lighting. Mantello thoroughly utilizes all of this in his dynamic staging, and although Steven Hoggett continues to rely on the same tricks that netted him a Tony nomination for Once, his choreography's angular vocabulary is mostly appropriate here. When all of these elements work together, like they do in the production's stunning final tableau, it is almost magical.

The Last Ship is a noble effort, one of the rare new musicals not based on any pre-existing source material. The show doesn't always live up to its potential, but there is plenty to appreciate between Sting's lush score, the fine performances of the cast, and the starkly beautiful images created by Joe Mantello and his production team. Those with any interest should definitely head over to the Neil Simon Theatre before the show closes next weekend, as there are far worse ways one can spend a chilly winter evening.

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