A musical drama about the imminent demise of a shipbuilding town in the North East of England, and a union’s last-ditch attempt to reclaim the village’s pride? Audiences: No thanks.
How about a musical drama about shipbuilding and unions, but with a song score by Sting? Audiences: Ha ha… nice try, but still no.
All of the above, but with Sting actually in the show? Audiences: Okay. Fine. Uncle.
As it happens, Sting’s original music for “The Last Ship” is strong enough that it ought to be a draw on its own, at least for anyone who values contemporary pop and rock songwriters moving into musical theater and actually getting it right. In any case,the production he conceived based on his own experience growing up amid the shipbuilding trade is bound to have a much more successful life as a road show than it did in its original Broadway port in 2014-15, thanks to Sting being on board from the beginning, rather than enlisted as a last-ditch casting measure, as he was then.
Although you wouldn’t necessarily guess it from his looming portraiture in the advertising, the veteran rock star has a supporting role in the show, which is running through Feb. 16 at the Ahmanson in L.A. That’s all well and good: his score is more finely tuned than his performance, but it’s nice to have him in the company regardless — not just because audiences get to spend time in the company of a Very Famous Person, but because there’s something reassuring about having the show’s real captain on stage and so visibly near the helm.
Having established at the outset of this review just how much of a hard sell “The Last Ship” can be when it’s reduced to pure synopsis, one thing that’s worth pointing out early and often is how badly the show does want to be a crowd-pleaser. In showing us a town that comes together to find its pride and maybe save its very life, it skews a little closer to a “Kinky Boots” than the downbeat Ken Loach dramaturgy the storyline suggests. In the five years since it closed on Broadway, the book has been completely rewritten, by a different author (Lorne Campbell, who also directs), and some of Sting’s score revised, too. Only someone who’s seen both versions — and there may be very few of those, given the short run on Broadway — could say whether the retooling made it more audience-friendly or not. In its present state, anyway, the show hasn’t really resolved the tension between its gritty subject matter and the uncontrollable urge to win an audience over with razzle-dazzle and soaring uplift. But there’s a lot to enjoy in the shifting middle ground.
Lest you imagine a musical play about unions will expend too much time on the finer points of the privatization of industry in 1970s England, “The Last Ship” really pushes two fairly simple domestic subplots to the fore. The one of these that gets a little less stage time than the other has Sting, as foreman Jackie White, finding himself even more endangered than the shipyard, as he reveals to his wife (Jackie Morrison) that he’s just come from the doctor and it wasn’t a routine checkup. Suffice it to say that rarely in entertainment history has anyone gone from the hint of a cough to full Camille status on less notice.
The larger personal aside in this ensemble piece concerns Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile), a mid-30s seaman who grew up in town and returns after 17 years away only to learn from the girl he left behind, Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee), is now a fiercely independent feminist businesswoman whose aspiring-musician daughter is… 17. As the surprised father and his daughter, Ellen (Sophie Reid), become acquainted after a lifetime of being in the dark about each other’s existence, there’s a hint of “Mamma Mia!” in the air, without the paternity mystery or karaoke. Gideon is written and played too blandly to make us care about whether he carried much of a torch for Meg in his decade and a half at sea. But Sting has written him a lovely song, “When the Pugilist Learned to Dance,” to let the dad assure his daughter that her parents really did have a sweet courtship, when he was a teen boxer being beaten into submission by Meg’s feminine charms. (A brief bit of mock-fight choreography convinces you Savile might really have been a slugger once upon a time, even if the tall and handsome actor doesn’t look the part.)
Young Ellen has been turned into a fleeting narrator for the show. Not just that, but she’s been turned into a girl, since the character was a boy on Broadway. The most familiar song in the production, “All This Time,” which Sting had a hit with in 1990, has been taken away from Gideon, who had it on Broadway, and given to the girl, who now strums it on a ukulele as she plans to skip town in Act II. It’s not a perfect retrofit — probably not many 17-year-olds would write a lyric like Sting’s “Men go crazy in congregations, they only get better one by one” — but it’s a nice touch to give an aspiring songwriter character the show’s bona fide vintage hit.
But the true showstopper comes earlier in the show, and belongs to the mom, Meg. Belting out “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor” as soon as her old flame arrives in town, McNamee is just McNificent. (Sorry.) Arguably, the song is too bold for the moment: Wouldn’t most of us crumple into a heap if our baby daddy suddenly appeared after disappearing into a void, rather than deliver a powerhouse number that’s as sexy as it is raging, in a fun, Peggy Lee kind of a way? But the performance of it is so wonderful, you won’t much care how emotionally congruous it is. Trust us: In every city “The Last Ship” visits on tour, there’ll be some composer in the audience who goes home and starts trying to write a whole new musical for McNamee to star in.
But it’s not just Meg who got ghosted. The whole burg is in danger of turning into a ghost town, as we return intermittently to the story’s bigger picture. The saga begins with the locals, hugely proud of the massive ship they’ve just completed, being informed that the buyer has backed out, with no others to be found in the economic climate, and that everyone’s only hope of making a living for even a short time longer is to compete for the few jobs necessary to dismantle the ship for scrap. If you’ve read up on the history of shipbuilding in England, and strikes (and the program helpfully provides some Cliff Notes on these subjects), you know none of this can end too socioeconomically happy. But you can also tell from the bittersweet tone of the proceedings that it’s probably headed toward a rabble-rousingly fist-pumping climax anyway, even if you’re not meant to think too long and hard about what might happen to the town in the sequel. It’s at the finish that “The Last Ship” finally succumbs whole-heartedly to something you can reasonably describe as cornball. Yet it’s also at that point that the already impressive stage design by 59 Productions — which almost exclusively uses big screens to suggest changing locales and fast-moving clouds — suddenly makes use of a 3D effect that may viscerally stir whether you want to be stirred or not.
Again, the irony is thick, when it comes to a show that couldn’t be more audience-friendly in so many regards, yet opts for a potentially difficult authenticity in others — like the actors’ regionally authentic accents, which incorporate heavy Irish and Scottish influences, as they would in the North East of England. So here’s a pro tip: Consider not waiting till intermission to rent a hearing-assist headset, which greatly helps in making out all the dialogue, which can be difficult to decipher in the early going, when there’s a lot of cross-talk among the ensemble. (I will admit that at one point, I found myself rooting for the show’s two villains, for the sole reason that, as upper-class interlopers in the town’s affairs, their high-society diction rang clearer than the locals’.)
If the show sometimes seems uncomfortable in traversing lines between sociorealism and sheer show business, there are also aspects in which it benefits from not having to choose one or the other. Sting’s Tony-nominated song score is a good example of that: It draws heavily on U.K. roots music for much if not most of the duration, but he’s not afraid to go pop when the show needs it, whether that’s with a powerful new ballad or, as mentioned before, very brief bits of borrowing from his own “Soul Cages”-era catalog. His heart is clearly in the right place here, as he recalls the bygone England he grew up in, and so is his songwriting soul. Like the troubled ship of the title, his passion project won’t endure quite as planned. But as it heads out on tour with an enthusiastic all-singing, all-dancing, all-unionizing cast, there’s a word that comes to mind: seaworthy.
From Los Angeles, “The Last Ship” moves on to San Francisco (Feb. 20-March 22), Washington, D.C. (March 27-April 5), St. Paul (April 8-19) and Detroit (April 22-26).
Director: Lorne Campbell. Book by: Campbell (original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey). Music and lyrics: Sting. Producer: Karl Sydow. Designer: 59 Productions. Sound designer: Sebastian Frost. Lighting designer: Matt Daw. Music supervisor and orchestrator: Rob Mathes. Musical director: Richard John. Movement director: Lucy Hind. Costume designer: Molly Einchcomb.
Cast: Sting, Frances McNamee, Jackie Morrison, Oliver Savile, Marc Akinfolarin, Joe Caffrey, Orla Gormley, Annie Grace, Hannah Richardson, Sean Kearns, Sophie Reed.