Wednesday, June 11, 2014

With Steely Look at Hometown Cast Adrift, Maiden Voyage of 'The Last Ship' Arrives with Considerable Sting -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Last Ship
a new musical with original music & lyrics by Sting
book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey
directed by Joe Mantello
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 13

When the Tony Awards are next held a year from now--as they were just awarded on Sunday--I would be surprised if The Last Ship doesn't win Best New Musical and several other prizes.

On the basis of its very first public performance, Tuesday night at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre, the show--featuring original music and lyrics by Sting--seems like a surefire hit once it arrives on Broadway in October.

And I am far from the world's biggest Sting fan, having cooled to much of his solo work--and persona--after loving most of his output with The Police. (To be fair, I like the best of his solo material and greatly enjoyed his tandem concert with Paul Simon in February.)

As far as I know, the musical employs only one pre-existing song from Sting's catalog--"When We Dance"--although several songs that wound up in the show were first released last fall on on his own The Last Ship album. (Note: A commenter has informed me that "Island of Souls" and "Ghost Story" are also from Sting's back catalog.)

Yet while The Last Ship certainly sounds like a musical full of songs written by Sting, it should satisfy not only hard-core fans of his, and somewhat middling ones like me, but conceivably even musical theater lovers not familiar with his oeuvre.

For while Sting's sonic stamp is considerably more overt on the semi-autobiographical Last Ship than Cyndi Lauper's was on Kinky Boots--similarly a Chicago world premiere I saw on its first preview and predicted, correctly, that it would win the Tony--the man born Gordon Sumner does a stellar job in writing songs that service the story.

Although those expecting hit singles--old or new--may be disappointed, along with crafting several solid expository songs with emotional heft, Sting's score is highlighted by several powerful choral numbers, including the opening "Island of Souls," "Shipyard," the title song and "We Got Now't Else."

Appreciating that Sting crafted--with book writers Brian Yorkey and John Logan, both Tony winners--an original story about a shutdown shipyard in his hometown of Wallsend, England, whose residents decide to build one last ship, the conceit of civic pride amidst industrial strife doesn't exactly cover new ground.

British movies-turned-musicals like Billy Elliot, The Full Monty and Kinky Boots have similarly dealt with communal concerns of obsolescence stemming from the impending closure of mines, mills, factories, etc.

And the show's love story focused on Gideon Fletcher (something of an ersatz Sting, well-played and sung by Michael Esper) returning to Wallsend after 15 years away with hopes of rekindling romance with Meg Dawson (the lovely and also vocally superb Rachel Tucker), reminded me of another Brit flick of similar ilk, Brassed Off, as well as one of my favorite Irish films, The Boxer.

Without giving much away, coming home after the death of his father--which resonates knowing Sting's similar real-life circumstances but feels a bit narratively tertiary--Gideon finds Meg has long been involved with Arthur, an executive with the company that is shuttering the shipyard, and that she has a son.

Yet while the context feels familiar, and the storyline regarding a community deciding to build and sail a ship without corporate support or client commission may extend plausibility, the songs, performances, pacing and scenery are all superlative enough to infuse freshness and render incredulity insignificant.

While Sting is the most prominent marquee name involved in this show, there is clearly first-rate talent throughout the cast and crew.

Brian Yorkey, the book writer of Next to Normal, initially collaborated with Sting, but John Logan--a highly-successful Chicago-bred playwright (Red) and screenwriter (Skyfall, Hugo, The Aviator, Gladiator)--has seemingly now assumed storyline stewardship.

Together with acclaimed director Joe Mantello, who helmed Wicked among many impressive musical and drama credits, the writers have crafted a very well-paced musical that fits well into the Broadway milieu while incorporating Sting's rock/folk/jazz-infused score that brings something new to the musical theater form.

On its way to Broadway--led by Jeffrey Seller, a producer previously responsible for Tony winners Rent, Avenue Q and In the Heights--this production is loaded with outstanding performers, led by Esper and Tucker, but also highlighted by Jimmy Nail, an old friend of Sting's from Newcastle, who sounds much like him as he sings the role of Jackie White, a shipbuilding foreman who voices the show's key motif:
"Man's hands aren't meant to be idle; where's he to find dignity without a purpose?"
Also a joy is Broadway vet Fred Applegate--who I've seen multiple times in The Producers and other shows--playing Father O'Brien, the heart of the Wallsend community and the one who hatches the idea to build a "last ship."

The cast received a well-merited standing ovation from the mostly-full first night crowd, though some of us up in the balcony had strained to see some scenes that took place at the front of the stage. We also couldn't see much of the ship that formed the backdrop of otherwise impressive scenery. But this isn't a real point of detraction, and speaking as a denizen of the nosebleeds who has had trouble understanding authentic brogues used in Once and other shows, I appreciate the decision to soften the northern England accents to make the dialogue more easily digestible.
With due deference to my seeing--and as a non-professional, reviewing--the first preview performance (Press Night is June 25), I feel The Last Ship is well on its way to being a truly great show even if I didn't quite find it as emotionally affecting as was likely intended.

But whatever it lacks in bite, or greatest hits--though one can readily imagine the themes if not strains of "Driven to Tears," "When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around," "Hole in My Life," "So Lonely," "Message in a Bottle," "Fortress Around Your Heart," "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free," "All This Time," "The Soul Cages," "Invisible Sun" and "Brand New Day," among others, running through the narrative--The Last Ship certainly has, meaning this quite appreciatively, plenty of Sting.

And while it's not inconceivable a better musical could arrive on Broadway before the 2015 Tonys, it seems unlikely.

So if you can get a ticket before The Last Ship leaves Chicago on July 13, by all means, de do do do.

1 comment:

Patti Hinton said...

Lovely to see the play receive early support. A small correction, there are three songs from Sting's back catalogue in the play: Island of Souls, When We Dance and Ghost Story.