The Last Ship, Sting’s debut as a Broadway composer/lyricist, opened Sunday night with fellow pop icons Billy Joel — whose songs made the Twyla Tharp show Movin’ Out a Broadway hit — and The Boss in attendance. The reviews were unanimous in praising Sting’s score for the roman a clef about a man who returns to his northern England hometown after 15 years only to find the local shipyard shut down and the love of his life living with another man and raising a son. The notices also challenged reviewers (this one included) and headline writers to coin or repurpose as many sea-and-sail-related cliches as possible, and they had a hull of a time doing so.
The book, by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, took some hits for conventionality and heavy-handedness, but overall, the launch was sound, with praise also for Joe Mantello’s directing, Steven Hoggett’s choreography and a likable cast led by Michael Esper as the stand-in for Gordon Sumner. Still, there was plenty of good news (and usable quotes) for the producing consortium of Jeffrey Seller, Kathryn Schenker, Kevin McCollum, Sander Jacobs, James L. Nederlander, Roy Furman, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss.
Here’s a taste of the notices:
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post (3 out of 4 stars) : “[T]his is a grown-up musical the way Sting is a grown-up musician — offering literate, haunting ballads and well-crafted, pop-folky barnburners. It’s also overly earnest and a wee bit grandiose…In many ways, The Last Ship is a shaky raft trying to balance too many things, too predictably. But its heart-on- the-sleeve honesty helps keep it afloat.”
Linda Winer, Newsday: “If sincerity and noble intentions were enough to make a good musical, The Last Ship would be a smash. If haunting folk-tinged melodies and choruses of rousing determination could float this boat, Sting’s heartfelt debut musical would justify the years he devoted to the $14 million epic about a depressed English shipbuilding town very much like the one where he grew up…Alas, The Last Ship is a ravishing concert with passionate singers buried in a monotonous, improbable story and surrounded by dark rusted metal with grim industrial scaffolds (by David Zinn)…Unlike many other pop stars who try Broadway but only sound like themselves, Sting creates different voices for different characters. We hope he tries again.”
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News (4 out of 5 stars}: “The pop god delivers his A-game in The Last Ship, a new musical about coming home and letting go that overflows with heart. Not bad for a Broadway debut as a composer…Director Joe Mantello (Wicked) packs his production with stirring stage pictures and keeps the action flowing at a brisk clip. Choreographer Steven Hoggett (Once) uses rousing and rustic stomps and romantic little gestures between lovers to add more textures. Too bad the two-pronged story by Brian Yorkey (Next To Normal) and John Logan (Red) sometimes sinks this enterprise.”
Charles Isherwood, New York Times: “[I]t’s hard not to root for this ambitious, earnest musical, which opened on Sunday night at the Neil Simon Theater. Rich in atmosphere — I half expected to see sea gulls reeling in the rafters — and buoyed by a seductive score that ranks among the best composed by a rock or pop figure for Broadway, the musical explores with grit and compassion the lives of the town’s disenfranchised citizens, left behind as the industry that gave them their livelihood set sail for foreign lands. But along with its accomplishments, which include a host of vital performances from its ample cast under the direction of Joe Mantello, The Last Ship also has its share of nagging flaws. The book, by John Logan and Brian Yorkey…is unfocused and diffuse…The varied score draws on the antique sounds of sea chanteys, and often has a heavily Celtic sound — with a little Kurt Weill thrown in for good measure.for all the ruminative, haunting beauty of its score, this musical often feels dramatically landlocked — like a ship without a crew.”
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: “[T]here’s no mistaking the voice of Sting in both wistful balladeer and rousing reveler modes in his stirring score for The Last Ship…Sadly, it’s also a bit of a yawn…For anyone who cares about the endangered species of the original Broadway musical, that’s a regrettable shortcoming, particularly when so much love and artistry have been poured into the show. There’s genuine feeling in the songs’ exploration of the conflicted bonds between fathers and sons, and the crippling losses of men robbed of their work, thereby denied their dignity and pride…[but] it falls back on that old standby of using allegory as an excuse for a plot that — sorry — simply doesn’t float.”
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: “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. 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. 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.”