The last international rock icon to stake a claim on Broadway was Bono, and we know how that worked out. Happily, The Last Ship — an unapologetically sentimental coming-of-age tale with gorgeous, deeply felt songs by Sting — is no Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark. The Last Ship, which opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre, isn’t bloated with technological frou-frou. Indeed, it tells a decidedly old-fashioned story with a few modernist plot fillips that mostly keep us interested. Perhaps that will be enough to keep this worthy and often moving but insufficiently ballasted boat on course.
The setting is Wallsend, a town in northeast England whose main source of employment is the local shipyard. Like the brittle sallow light that designer Christopher Akerland throws across the girders, rigging and riveted metal sheets of David Zinn’s evocative set, Wallsend is fading into history along with its generations of craftsmen who know only the business of navy building.
“This is our work in the welding of steel/And the bending of plates in the shape of a keel/In our hands are the tools that we’ll leave to our sons/The traditions and skills that we hope to pass on” the men sing in the all but funereal opening chorus. At the center of it all is 15-year-old Gideon, whose father has been left disabled by an accident at the yard and who dreams of nothing less than escape with his girlfriend Meg.
“Your place is here, in the yards,” his father tells him. “But that was your place, not mine,” Gideon repies. “I can’t end up…” Dad finishes the sentence: “Like me?”
Of course Gideon leaves, promising Meg he’ll come back for her — which he does, after 15 long years as a roving merchant seaman. The shipyard is about to be turned into a scrap-metal market, the men still there offered a Hobson’s choice between humiliating, low-paying jobs — or the dole. Meg has long-since taken up with Arthur, a shipbuilder himself now engaged by the new owners to convince his friends to accept the offer.
So, The Last Ship is an oft-told tale of a young man’s hard-won coming of age. Or a parable about the exploitation of labor (complete with a Das Kapital-waving Marxist in the crowd). Or simply Sting recounting the essentially true story of his own humble beginnings. The show is set primarily in the local bar — giving it a more than passing resemblance to Once — and the shipyard itself, where the prodigal Gideon fans the coals of rebellion, woos the resistant Meg and gives some life lessons to her teenage boy who, it will surprise no one but Gideon himself, is … well I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out for you.
Nor will it surprise you to learn there’s a benevolent priest with a fondness for a pint, a predilection for profanity and a soft spot for Meg. When Gideon convinces the men to defy the shutout and build one last ship, Father O’Brien (the terrific Fred Applegate) is right there with him, urging them on, until … well you can probably guess that as well.
There’s plenty about The Last Ship that’s wonderful, starting with many of the songs – ballads, jigs, big chorus numbers and torchy solos – that make a solid case for Sting as a serious craftsman of more than individual songs. Even if a few have been repurposed, the scores works as of-a-piece, satisfyingly orchestrated by Rob Mathes.
And while that expert director Joe Mantello struggles to keep the energy high, the show comes alive when Steven Hogget’s dances take over. As he demonstrated with Once and The Glass Menagerie (hardly your typical choreographic showcase), Hoggett has a gift for imbuing ordinary-looking people with grace. The vernacular may be common but the impact is poetry, sweeping and beautiful. And in the appealing Michael Esper and Rachel Tucker, as Gideon and Meg, the show has a fine center of gravity.
What unfolds between Gideon and Meg (along with the sympathetic Arthur of Aaron Lazar) is predictable — until it isn’t. I wish I could say that the book by John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next To Normal) was up to the score but it’s a stew of cliches that mostly reinforces our sense that we’ve been here before – if not in Northumberland, then in the nearby coal mines and in the shoe factories in the south and the fallow potato farms due west in Ireland, all of which have inspired mournful stage works.
Too realistic to be a fable and too incredible not to be jangled by the plot holes (How do the men get into the guarded, fenced shipyard every day? How are the materials for the ship brought in? Where the heck are they all sailing off to?) The Last Ship is soul-nourishing as a concert piece but only fitfully convincing as a total work of theater.