by: JK Clarke
If you’re a fan of the musician Sting (as I am), you likely share the sentiments of legions of his fans: you loved his early work with the rock band The Police; liked, or even loved his first few solo albums, not minding that they were somewhat pompous; and enjoyed subsequent albums despite finding him intolerably self-indulgent. He’s an undeniably supremely talented, legendary musician, composer and singer. He’s even not bad as an actor, usually featured in films for his eclectic caché or iconic style. And as an ambitious artist, he has dipped his toe in live theater a time or two, most notably in an overly long 1989 Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera, for which he was savaged by critics. This time around fares somewhat better with an original production, The Last Ship, for which he has written the music, lyrics and conceived the story.
The Last Ship is essentially a paean to the working class and to a dying era of industrialization. In this case, the industry is shipbuilding, in a town on the English coast, near Newcastle. Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper) is the son of a shipbuilder, Joe Fletcher (Jamie Jackson), injured on the job when the boy is just 15 years old. Gideon’s father expects that his son will follow him into the shipyard, symbolically handing him his worn work boots. But Gideon has other ideas, and telling his girl Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker) he will soon return for her, sets off to see the world as a sailor and doesn’t return for another 15 years. But when he comes back, on the news of his father’s impending death, too much has changed: the shipyards are bankrupt, the men unemployed, and Meg with a 15-year-old son who not only resembles him but has shipbuilding coursing through his veins. The parish priest, Father O’Brien (a charming Fred Applegate) arranges for the men to build one final, symbolic ship just as Gideon returns to town . . . and that’s the locus and catalyst of our play. But what it’s really about is nostalgia, regret and heartbreak, themes that resonate in Sting’s work. Any one, longtime Sting fan will recognize these themes immediately. Sadness over a failed relationship with one woman in particular (presumably his first wife) and his tumultuous relationship with his father. The second number, All This Time, (beautifully sung by Esper’s Gideon) is a song from Sting’s 1991 album, The Soul Cages, which wrestles with the guilt over the death of his own father. And as Gideon’s heart begins to break, later in the play, one can’t help wonder if we will be hearing Sting’s oft-repeated lament over lost love, “a thousand rainy days since we first met; it’s a big enough umbrella, but it’s always me that ends up getting wet.” Surprisingly, we don’t.
Apart from the too familiar themes and a story told on many other stages and in many other books, the looming problem with The Last Ship is the very weak, sometimes cringe-inducing, ham-handed dialog of the book (John Logan and Brian Yorkey). It’s rather surprising that Sting didn’t exert more creative control over this portion of the production, because it distracted from his admittedly lovely and familiar music (which also suffered lyrically—notably “What Say You, Meg,” beautifully sung by Aaron Lazar as Arthur Millburn). The writing was either blatantly cliché when serious (“You love who I used to be. Arthur loves who I am!”) or comically hacky, with the joke-writing apparently influenced by Benny Hill.
It really is tragic that the producers or director Joe Mantello allowed for such unevenness in the production, for there were fine, enjoyable performances (particularly Aaron Lazar and Rachel Tucker’s enchanting vocals); quality stomp dance-heavy choreography (Steven Hoggett); and beautifully rustic, evocative set (David Linn) and lighting (Christopher Akerlind).
If it is Sting’s intention to prove his prowess in multiple disciplines, it may be time that he exert more energy in perfecting the craft. The Last Ship had enormous potential and some very high points, but what it perfected in certain aspects was counterweighted by insurmountable deficiencies. What we wind up with is a mediocre product floating in a lifeless sea.
The Last Ship. Through March 29, 2015 at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). www.thelastship.com