When I heard Sting sing the title song from THE LAST SHIP on the Tony Awards, in June, I thought this might be a show to avoid. Curiosity got the better of me, so when the musical showed up on tdf (a bad sign for the longevity of a new musical), I grabbed a ticket. I'm glad I did. Once one buys the rather incredible premise, THE LAST SHIP is a lovely show beautifully produced and superbly performed.
THE LAST SHIP is an example of a genre we're familiar with from films like THE FULL MONTY or the fine recent film PRIDE -- sagas of folks in post-industrial Britain trying to regain some self-respect. The musical is set in what was a shipbuilding area of northeast England. Shipbuilding has moved to where there is cheap labor and the only job opportunities left for the men who come from generations of shipbuilders is salvage work dismantling the factories and docks. Enter Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper), who left home and girlfriend fifteen years ago to wander around the world as a merchant sailor and has returned home for his father's funeral. Gideon saw no future in being a shipbuilder. His principal motivation for returning is to see Meg (Rachel Tucker), the girl he left behind, but she is now in a relationship with solid, practical Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar) who helps in raising her son. Of course the fifteen year old boy knows that Gideon is his biological father. Yes, Meg has to choose between solid Arthur and wandering Gideon. Gideon has to decide whether he can really be a father to his son.
The crux of the show, and one that takes a bit of a leap of faith on the audience's part, is Gideon's conversion from someone who has no stake in his old community to a leader who helps the men decide to build one last ship in order to regain their pride. He has to replace the old priest (Fred Applegate) in fighting to make the building of this one last ship possible. One has to accept this saga on a mythical level rather than a realistic one, but it's a musical, right? Why not go with it?
THE LAST SHIP is a gorgeous production. There may be one chanty too many, but Sting's score (much of it was written for a concept album a couple of years ago) is varied and often beautiful, particularly the ballads. The lyrics effectively define character and action. The book propels the story effectively and the musical numbers are seamlessly integrated with the dialogue. Joe Mantello has staged much of the show on a large open space with furniture moved on and off by the actors. It's high tech when it needs to be, but keeps the focus on the characters, both the leads and the important ensemble. This is a show about community, after all. Stephen Hoggett has once again created movement and dance that is stylized, but never out of character. David Zinn's sets are impressive but never steal focus from the actors, and one can't speak highly enough of Christopher Akerlind's lighting design.
For this show to work, Gideon needs to be played by a charismatic actor who can sing. The role is dramatically and vocally challenging. Gideon is barely off stage. I would never have thought of Michael Esper for this kind of role. I've always seen him as troubled contemporary middle-class young men. He's terrific here. He has a natural singing voice that doesn't sound trained, though it obviously is, and he makes Gideon as three-dimensional a character as one can expect in a musical. The rest of the cast lives up to the standard Esper sets. Rachel Tucker plays a type -- the tough but conflicted leading lady -- but she plays it convincingly. Fred Applegate is excellent as the profane old priest and Collin Kelly-Sordelet is winning as young Gideon and Gideon's son Tom.
I read that THE LAST SHIP isn't doing very well at the box office. I find it extremely sad that an excellent show like this has to struggle to find an audience.
THE LAST SHIP. Neil Simon Theatre. November 6, 2014.