As all of New York knows by now, Sting has stepped into “The Last Ship,” the dark and gorgeously melodic musical he conceived and scored from the fabric of his own life. The surge of sales at the box office was only to be expected; not so, the galvanizing impact on the rest of the cast. Although he plays a secondary role in the show, Sting is a huge presence, electrifying the house in his two big solos and inspiring the other members of the ensemble, who now perform as if possessed.
Jackie White, the role that Sting took over from Jimmy Nail, is the foreman of the historic shipyard in the songwriter’s birthplace of Wallsend, England, where iconic ships like the Mauritania were built and launched. When the shipyard is forced to close, Jackie becomes the spokesman for the proud shipbuilders of this company town, who have lost not only their jobs and their manhood, but their very identity. It’s Jackie who fires up the men to occupy the shipyard and build one last ship to sail around the world.
Nail, a robust singer and a powerful performer in his own right, brought a strong sense of suffering humanity to the role. Sting is more of an Olympian figure, rousing the men in anthemic numbers like “We’ve Got Now’t Else” and the powerful title song to heroic feats way beyond their mortal limits.
He’s certainly had an impact on Michael Esper, who plays the lead role of Gideon Fletcher, the Sting-like rebel who defied tradition and fled his home for parts unknown, returning just in time to redeem himself by standing alongside the rebellious shipbuilders and singing his brains out. Gideon is still an impossibly cliched character, but Esper’s impassioned performance is thoroughly redemptive.
The show itself remains an uneasy mix of styles — half-baked realism at war with mythic fable. And it still works best on abstract terms, which helmer Joe Mantello and his creative designers have carried off through the otherworldly imagery of giant man-made vessels capable of plowing the deep waters of a largely symbolic sea. In his bigger-than-life persona, Sting embodies an otherworldly quality that allows this ship to sail beyond all human limits.