Sting lives up to his nickname, “the King of Pain,” with “The Last Ship.” Melancholy tones of sorrow and regret saturate this highly personal and intensely felt musical play, which is set in Wallsend, the industrial town in the north of England where the singer-songwriter grew up. The somber book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey takes place in 2007, the year the historic shipyard closed and the town lost its purpose and identity. The lyrical language of Sting’s mournful score gives poetic voice to the distressed shipbuilders, but depicting their story as a heroic allegory is regrettably alienating.
Helmer Joe Mantello has done a masterful job of translating Sting’s haunting musical idiom (especially in soulful songs like “The Last Ship” and “Island of Souls”) into stark imagery. The centerpiece of David Zinn’s set is the metal skeleton of a massive ship, looming over the bewildering trappings of a busy shipyard and overshadowed by projections of a dark and restless sea. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design ranges from blue-black and green-black to solid black-black, and Brian Ronan is responsible for the discordant soundscape (in “Shipyard”) of strong men hard at work.
The fiercely committed Michael Esper inhabits the brooding persona of Gideon, the anti-hero who hops one of those great ships to parts unknown, turning his back on his dying father, his working-class heritage and his sweetheart Meg (a spitfire of a perf from Rachel Tucker). “I want nothing from you / I want nothing at all,” he declares. “I’m nothing like you.” Gideon makes good on his promise to return, but not until 15 years later, when his father is dead, Meg is engaged (to Arthur Millburn, the very presentable company man played by Aaron Lazar), and the shipyard is about to close.
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Gideon’s return is sincerely stirring (in Esper’s sensitive handling of “All this Time”), but the prodigal son isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by his neighbors, who understandably resent the way he abandoned the town and its multi-generational heritage. But kindly Father O’Brien (a cliched role, but a winning character in Fred Applegate’s benevolent perf) says he has a good heart. That declaration quickly (too quickly) wins over stalwart men like the shipyard foreman, Jackie White (Jimmy Nail, in fervent form and robust voice), as a leader of men and their big ensemble numbers.
Meg is a tougher sell, and in a rousing number set in the local pub she leads an impassioned song of rebellion (“If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor”) against feckless men. This is where Steven Hoggett’s rough-and-tumble choreography comes in. There are no graceful dance steps for these calloused proletarian men and their blowsy women, just a lot of boot-stomping and thigh-slapping to indicate how inarticulate these poor souls are at expressing their emotions. Hoggett’s muscular choreography might be true to Sting’s vision of the neighbors he left on the dock, but it’s very unkind. (And there’s no Billy Elliot in this town to express their inner grace.)
The uplifting narrative hook (based on real-life events) has Gideon joining the displaced shipbuilders in their heroic, if hopeless enterprise of building one last ship to affirm the dignity of the working men of Wallsend and the value of their work ethic. “For what are we men without a ship to complete?” they demand in the title song, “Unless we’re snatching some hope from the jaws of defeat.”
British popular culture is awash in shows (from “Kinky Boots” and “The Full Monty” to “Calendar Girls” and “Billy Elliot” et al) that celebrate the noble gestures of the little folk. But the allegorical form of “The Last Ship” sets it apart from such feel-good shows, asking that we view the story in the more ancient tradition of myth and fairy tales, where it’s perfectly okay for the hero to repent and return home after years, even decades of wandering.
Being grounded in the very real world of collapsing industries and a redundant work force, Sting’s story doesn’t lend itself to this mythic treatment. Although the characters only go skin-deep, there’s enough humanity in them to make us fret about realistic concerns like how the ship-building enterprise was funded and why Meg didn’t string Gideon up by his heels.