Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Last Ship at the Neil Simon Theatre

Someone needs to propose writing a dissertation on the recent trend of depicting the end of industrial Britain in musical theater. There certainly are more and more candidates for analysis. The latest is Sting's love letter to his home town, Wallsend, a former shipyard town most famous for building the Carpathia, the ship that responded to the sinking of the Titanic. What is good about The Last Ship is the haunting score by Sting, some terrific performances by the acting ensemble, and the atmospheric direction by Joe Mantello. What hurts The Last Ship and ultimately makes it not quite a satisfying evening of theater is that its subject invites comparison to the death of industrial Britain musicals that have come before it. Many of the themes in The Last Ship will lead a veteran theatergoer inevitably to start making comparisons, not in favor of the well meaning The Last Ship.

Gideon Fletcher is a young teenager with a girl he loves and a father with whom he has a difficult relationship. When Dad is permanently injured he pressures young Gideon into entering the family business. Instead Gideon runs away taking to a life at sea. Fifteen years later he returns after learning of his father's death. The town's shipyard has closed and the ghosts of the past haunt Gideon in the present day. When the Catholic priest Father O'Brien proposes that the workers occupy the shipyard and build one last ship to show the world what skills are being lost forever in the name of progress and cheap overseas labor, Gideon ends up becoming a reluctant leader.

A large problem with The Last Ship lies in its book which is co-written by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Mr. Yorkey left this project to bring If/Then to Broadway. The plot has holes in it and suffers from having too melancholic a tone throughout the piece. As an example, Father O'Brien puts up the church building fund to build the ship. For an economically depressed area that must have been quite the fund. There is no clue what will happen to the ship once it is completed beyond its maiden voyage. The script would have been served by simply adding perhaps publicity for the project (bring in journalists or television coverage) and an actual goal for the ship rather than what seems like a metaphorical ending.

The tale is also not served by having characters and plot points that are almost cliches. The hero has conflicts with his father (see Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots). The good hearted Catholic priest, played with the tough love and blue humor that is needed by the always capable Fred Applegate is saddled with an unnecessary plot devise that will bring to mind the fate of a similar character in the film The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain. Naturally the girl left behind had Gideon's son. (this is really not a spoiler as said teenage son appears very quickly in the first act). Collin Kelly Sordelet makes an impressive Broadway debut as both Young Gideon and Gideon's son Tom. Both characters are distinctive and the script fortunately does not contain any true melodrama about the son not knowing who is his real father.

Rachel Tucker is tough as nails as Meg, the girl left behind. A love triangle is created by adding the character of Arthur, a shipyard worker turned executive who has been steadily in both Meg and Tom's life. Aaron Lazar helps make Arthur a genuine good sensible man and father figure so that there is fortunately no detour into, once again, melodrama land when it comes to reuniting Meg and Gideon after all those years.

Michael Esper has the perfect voice for the wayward Gideon Fletcher. In many ways he sounds like composer Sting, although that may be the nature of how Sting wrote the music. Mr. Esper has a challenge in that his character is part prodigal part absolute jerk, yet by the end of the evening the character reaches a satisfactory redemption.

Sting has written a beautiful score. It ranges from the haunting themes "Island of Souls" and "Ghost Story" to the rousing "If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor" and "Mrs. Dees' Rant."  The score is served well by the earthy character driven choreography of Steven Hoggett who did a similar style for the musical Once. The scenic elements of David Zimm and the lighting of Christopher Akerlind are atmospheric and suit well the piece.

One wishes that only one writer had shaped the book of The Last Ship as tightening the plot holes would have made it a more seaworthy evening of theater.

The Last Ship is being performed at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit or

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