When an artist has reached superstardom, it is difficult to take a new direction without being compared to who they were and what they once achieved. But their fame and name recognition will draw fans to their most recent endeavor regardless if the new project is outside the field that brought them legendary status. This is the elephant in Sting’s musical, “The Last Ship” and deserves a brief mention just like the shoulder brace he was wearing on opening night due to shoulder surgery. It was name recognition that brought Sting into the cast as foreman Jackie White, five years after its 2014 premiere in Chicago–perhaps to save a sinking ship.
Sting, the Rockstar, has written plenty of popular hits, ranging from songs with undercurrents of melancholy running through them (“Fields of Gold”, “They Walk Alone”, “Fragile”…) to anthems like “Brand New Day”, “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You”, “Every Breath You Take”… His 1991 album “Soul Cages” inspired “The Last Ship” and snippets of a few of those songs appear in the musical. All are reworked, some are fleeting, and you may have to listen intently to recognize some of them. The rest of the score, all written by Sting including the lyrics, is mostly undistinguishable lacking the depth, pathos and spirituality found in his earlier recordings including some of these very songs.
This Tony nominated (2015) musical tells the story of an English industrial town in decline and is Sting’s homage to his hometown and the class struggle that took place when the Swan Hunter Shipyard closed. It was originally written as a book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, with a new text by Lorne Campbell who also directed this production. It is also a love story between Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee) and Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile), childhood friends–turned adolescent lovers, turned into grudging adults and then lovers again—set against the turmoil confronting their community. When the teenager Fletcher realizes that he doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his stern drunken father (Old Joe Fletcher played by Sean Kearns) ) he sails away with the navy leaving a pregnant Dawson behind—unbeknown to both of them at the time of his departure. Fletcher returns home as abruptly and unexpectedly as he left 17 years earlier, not even returning for his father’s funeral but hoping to rekindle his love with Dawson. But it’s complicated. Dawson is rightfully angry and then there is their 17-year-old daughter, Ellen (Sophie Reid) who also isn’t sure what to do with her this stranger.
Both McNamee and Savile are phenomenal singers, with McNamee belting a single note for minutes at a time (“If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor”) and Savile’s full-bodied voice matching his handsome and lyrical dancer’s body (“And Yet”). But for all their talent and the story that holds them together at times their relationship lacks chemistry, and this storyline–like several of others in this musical–is overly romanticized and underdeveloped. The same is true with Sting, as Jackie White, and his wife Peggy White (Jackie Morrison) who suffer through awkward staging in a scene that should be full of heartfelt emotion when Jackie tells Peggy he has cancer. When he does die Jackie leaves his dead body with one of the crew members just minutes later and goes off to take up her husband’s mission. Not a tear is shed with Jackie’s death which says how little we got to know this stiff character or how significant his role was in this grandiose (2:45) story. Morrison is another noteworthy performer with a Julie Andrews style of singing and presence. Sting is often horse and raspy when speaking but delivers on his vocals, especially when he is supported by other singers.
The cast is full of great singing talent and they do so loudly. During many of the full company anthems they hit the audience with a wall of sound making lyrics indecipherable and rendering the songs meaningless in terms of developing the story. They fight for their rights, argue amongst themselves and with shipping company authorities, finally deciding not to scrap the last ship as they are ordered but instead finish it, sailing off to some destination unknown. Eventually, in the last scene, we find out that the ship’s name is “Utopia”—another romantic notion and tidy resolution to a complex social upheaval.
The set design (59 Productions) is the winner in “The Last Ship.” as most of the settings are projected onto a barebones shipyard stage with a steel girder staircase and catwalk that elevates performers. It also creates the sense of how grand the scale of the ship is. All interiors are projected onto scrims to create Dawson’s pub, Fletcher’s father’s house, the fiery sparks of steelworkers, ocean spray and Northern England rain clouds, a church interior, and even the momentum of the last ship sailing out of port at the very end of the show. Ironically, the most touching moment in the entire production comes when 1986 historical footage of the women from Wallsend, North East England formed a human blockade to resist the police (not the band!) who came to shut down the shipyard and turn the last ship into scrap metal. On their stoic faces of defiance, we see real emotion, vulnerable dignity, and their life story just in their gazes. “May the angels protect us, if all else fails, when the last ship sails…”
David E Moreno