Oct 27, 2014
The lesson of The Last Ship (three and a half out of four), the poignant, exuberant new musical that opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre, is that you can go home again. And again.
Sting, the show’s composer and lyricist, released an album in 1991, The Soul Cages, inspired by his youth in Wallsend, a shipbuilding town in northeast England, and his complicated relationship with his father, who had recently died. Ship is set in Wallsend, and its protagonist, Gideon Fletcher — not a huge stretch from Sting’s given name, Gordon Sumner — is a prodigal son who, having traveled widely, returns to mourn his dad’s passing.
Three songs from Sting’s catalog, including two from Cages, have been repurposed for the show. Ship‘s British, working-class terrain may seem familiar, too, if you’ve seen The Full Monty, Billy Elliot or Kinky Boots.
But Gideon’s story, which actually bears little resemblance to Sting’s (the character never gets rich or famous, for starters), feels far more original than that of most contemporary musical heroes. Its subjects include different kinds of love, romantic and familial, explored by the pop star and his collaborators, librettists John Logan and Brian Yorkey and director Joe Mantello, with wit and imagination.
When Gideon, played by a robust, likable Michael Esper, searches for Meg, the girl he left behind 15 years ago — to become a sailor, rather than follow his dad into the shipbuilding trade — he finds a single mother, whose son, Tom, happens to be 15. Meg also has a beau, Arthur, a former shipbuilder promoted to a corporate position, who is blazingly decent, and devoted to Tom.
After it’s announced that the shipyard will close down, to make way for cheaper labor, the worldly community priest, Father O’Brien, persuades the workers to defy their former employers and build their own ship. Gideon, disarmed by their pluck and desperate to win Meg back, swallows his ambivalence and joins them. So does Tom, fueling the rivalry between Gideon and Arthur.
There is some hokum along the way, with earthy ladies and gents carousing and clashing in the local pub. But Stephen Hoggett’s choreography also evokes the raw vitality and rough grace of these characters to exhilarating effect. The men leap and soar as an extension of their unmannered virility, not in defiance of it, while the women — particularly Rachel Tucker’s feisty, touching Meg — move with a sensual confidence that can’t be taught in class.
The songs are melodically and emotionally vital, offering potent vehicles for performers such as the wonderful Fred Applegate, cast as Father O’Brien, and Jimmy Nail, who plays a crusty veteran laborer, and whose smoky but siren-like voice evokes Sting’s more nearly than Esper’s.
By the deeply affecting final scene, Gideon, Meg and the others have learned that love, in all of its forms, can involve letting go — of grievances, dreams, even people. That’s hardly a novel concept, but The Last Ship makes it feel surprisingly fresh.