NEW YORK—Reclaiming the past, while at the same time letting go of it, is the central theme in the often rousing, sometimes touching “The Last Ship” (music and lyrics by Sting, book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey), the new Broadway musical now anchored at the Neil Simon Theatre.
The story takes place in Wallsend, England, where for generations men have gone to work in the shipyards, wielding steel, riveting hulls, and watching crafts they have built from the ground up launched out to sea.
It’s a hard life, but one that fills those working there with a sense of identity. It’s also one Young Gideon Fletcher (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) has no desire to be part of.
But when an accident at the yards leaves his father (Jamie Jackson) unable to work, Gideon finds he’s expected to step up and begin an apprenticeship there, something he refuses to do. After a bitter argument with his dad over the subject turns violent, the young man hops a freighter and leaves town.
Fifteen years later, Gideon (now played by Michael Esper) returns, lured home by news of his father’s passing. In the years since he left, hard times have arrived. Battered by a changing economy and foreign competition, the shipyards have recently closed, leaving hundreds out of work.
Gideon, however, is more interested in reconnecting with his girlfriend, Meg (Rachel Tucker), who wouldn’t run away with him all those years ago and who now has a boyfriend, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), and a 15-year-old son (Kelly-Sordelet).
Arthur works for the new owners of the yard, who plan to turn it into a salvage and scrap operation, a place ships go to die rather than to be born.
Sting was born and raised in Wallsend and clearly knows the subject matter. The songs “Island of Souls,” “Shipyard,” and “We’ve Got Now’t Else” are among those showing the pride these men have in their craft and how it defines them.
The womenfolk are no slouches either, as seen in “Sail Away” sung by Peggy White (Sally Ann Triplett), wife of Jackie (Jimmy Nail), the foreman of the shipyards; and in “Mrs. Dees’ Rant,” where Beatrice Dees (Shawna M. Hamic) is one of those working at the Ship in the Hold pub, a place the workers frequent.
There’s also the very haunting title tune, which never fails to send chills down one’s spine. “The Last Ship” is also a plan hatched by Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), the parish priest, to have the now unemployed workers take over the yards and build one final ship.
Unfortunately, the main characters and the love triangle they’re caught in feels a bit too clichéd. Gideon, trying to pick up where he left off with Meg, joins the men in their shipbuilding project a little too quickly, after being easily accepted by them after his departure all those years ago.
As for Meg, her actions come off as a bit too predictable, so that one can guess what’s going to happen before it actually does. Both actors are appealing, as is Lazar, but they’re all trapped in situations that are unable to rise to the level of the rest of the show.
There are also a few holes in the plot, such as Father O’Brien is allowed to continue to finance the men to build their ship once the source of income is discovered, and the new owners of the shipyards simply let the men continue to work there after they’ve illegally occupied the place.
Nail is fine as the somber Jackie, the person the other workers always look to, while Triplett is steadfast as his supportive wife. She knows her husband’s mind better than he knows it himself.
Applegate enjoyably steals every scene he’s in as Father O’Brien, a character who will do whatever he can to help his flock regain their self-respect.
Kelly-Sordelet and Dawn Cantwell are quite appealing as the younger Gideon and Meg; the sequences when their older counterparts share the stage with them work very well.
Esper, Tucker, and Lazar are all very good in their various musical moments, though they’re hamstrung by the book at too many other points.
Joe Mantello’s direction moves the story along quite well; the show zips by in no time at all. He’s also able to make the audience feel as if they’re right in the middle of the action.
David Zinn’s sets work very well. The shipyards feel powerful and inspiring and the pub homey and comfortable.
Christopher Akerlind’s lighting does a good job in setting the tone of the various scenes, and Brian Ronan’s sound design is excellent.
“The Last Ship” doesn’t work on all levels, but when it does (which is more often than not), the effect is nothing short of masterful.
Also in the cast are Drew McVety, Craig Bennett, Matthew Stocke, Eric Anderson, Rich Hebert, Sarah Hunt, Jeremy Davis, Bradley Dean, Colby Foytik, David Michael Garry, Timothy Gulan, Todd A. Horman, and Jeremy Woodard.
‘The Last Ship’
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Tickets: 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.