It's Halloween on Broadway. A man with a Horse head mask sits down three rows in front. The woman behind him asks if he will take it off for the performance. His friend tells her, curtly, that Mr Ed was fictional and horses can't speak. One of the three Elphabas sitting next to the woman laughs. The mood in the auditorium is jocular but uncertain - after all, this is a new musical. Will it be trick or treat?
Skip forward to the curtain call, and as the audience's enthusiasm for clapping starts to diminish, a lone figure, dressed all in black, bald, but with two perfect black horns adorning his gleaming pate, a glass of whiskey in his hand, ascends from the Pit. He toasts the audience. It is Sting. It's a great Halloween treat.
He is there because he is the composer and lyricist of The Last Ship, a new musical with a book from John Logan and Brian Yorkey, now having its premiere Broadway season at the Neil Simon Theatre. The production is directed by Joe Mantello and choreographed by Steven Hoggett.
If you are the kind of theatre-goer who only likes dazzling fluff with great dancing and tunes belted for all they are worth, The Last Ship is not going to be your cup of tea. If you are the kind of theatre-goer who likes flashy effects, ear-splitting rock tunes and plots that require no attention, The Last Ship is not going to be your cup of tea. If you are the kind of theatre-goer who only likes musicals that emphasise comedy, romanticise romance and have big, happy endings, The Last Ship is not going to be your cup of tea.
But - if you are the kind of theatre-goer who believes that the musical theatre is capable of anything in the right hands; if you like difficult themes and complex characters; if you enjoy songs which illuminate the personalities, relationships and feelings of the characters singing them; if you don't mind dark, grim themes that reflect reality; if you appreciate an analysis of hard questions, inventive staging, a score that has a muscular, cohesive wholeness; if you like your musicals performed by people who are actually capable of acting their roles and singing their songs; if that is you, then The Last Ship is a great trick: a real Broadway treat in totally unexpected form.
At its core, The Last Ship is about love, identity and acceptance. A small English town built on the shipbuilding trade, where generations have built ships for buyers all over the world, is the setting. A young headstrong lad refuses to follow his father into ship-building and decides to see the world, as a sailor. He wants his girlfriend to come too, but she refuses, unsure that that is the life she wants. He promises to return for her. Which he does... fifteen years later. (Idiot.)
When he returns, his father has been buried, the shipyard is closed, the men of the town are refusing to abandon their shipbuilding calling, and his girlfriend is happily living with another man (a turncoat to the shipbuilder folk) who has helped her raise her son, the one she had after the young sailor's departure, the son he never knew he had.
The narrative focuses on whether the sailor and his old girlfriend will re-unite, on whether a son will accept his father (both sets), and whether the town can find itself after losing the livelihood which has sustained generations. It's a grim, gutsy and compelling story, which, if you embrace it, is insightful, thrilling and memorable.
Mantello and Hoggett stage the action imaginatively and with a great sense of fluidity; scenes roll into each other, just as characters do. Superb lighting from Christopher Akerlind enhances the staging immeasurably. Understandably, the piece feels very masculine, what with bar fights, Union disputes, solidarity of fellow workers and a Priest who can drink with the best of them. Hoggett's movement reflects this; there is a lot of stamping, pounding and thumping, all of which is very effective.
And all of which contrasts deliciously with the more intimate moments - the transitions from teen to adult, the decisions to be made about what to do with the future, a funeral, the scene where the absent Dad teaches his son to dance, the mother's aching reminiscences.
In addition, David Zinn's wonderful, mercurial set design permits over a dozen locations with ease and style, and the final image of the ship sailing away is as powerful and genuinely exciting as they come. It's all done very simply, the sense of place, like a character, being established as much by the way the actors behave with the set as the design itself.
The most interesting thing about all of this is that, despite a distinct lack of women involved in the production team (Casting seems the one exception), it is the female characters who are the most rounded, most complex and most sensationally performed. Indeed, no matter how it may seem, the entire show is about Meg Watson; she is abandoned and the priest cares for her; the men she loves all come from the world of shipbuilding; the triangle between the three most important men in her life has her at the centre; she works at the pub and lives in the town. One way or another, every aspect of The Last Ship centres on the remarkable woman that is Meg.
Rachel Tucker is spectacularly impressive as Meg Dawson, the girl left behind by Michael Esper's Gideon. She has a tough, pragmatic exterior which conceals a broken, nay, shattered, heart. But, like a tigress, she will not brook any harm coming to her son. Her singing is phenomenally good, whether belting out the very funny "If You Ever See Me Talking To A Sailor" or deftly handling the ballads, "When We Dance" and "It's Not The Same Moon".
She perfectly conveys the confusion to be expected when someone you loved, the father of your child, suddenly pops back into your life declaring his undying love. Her fierce protective love for her son is clear as a bell and the honesty in her indecision and confusion are beautifully portrayed. This Meg is a tough, completely real woman who has endured a hard life with grace and compassion.
Sally Ann Triplett is in fabulous voice as Peggy White, the staunch wife of Jackie, who leads the shipbuilders. Her delivery of Sail Away is exquisite. She is, clearly, one of the backbones of the community and the heart she brings to the role is vital and pounding. She is at her magnificent best when leading the mourners of a funeral in a rousing anthem which is thrilling and life affirming: Show Some Respect.
Shawna M Hamic has great fun with the ball-breaking cricket bat wielding pub landlord who can take on any brawling drunken men who cross her and Mrs Dee's Rant gets Act Two off with a bang. And there is lovely work from Dawn Cantwell who plays Meg as a young girl; a neatly judged, endearing performance which sets the tone for the whole evening.
In the dual role of the young Gideon who ran away to sea and Meg's son, Tom, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, in his Broadway debut, is delightful in every way. His turn his complex - he has to show the traces of the man Gideon will be and then show the traces of the man Gideon has created. He does it very well, with great charm and that awkward rebelliousness that is the epicentre of one's teenage years. The Night The Pugilist Learned How To Dance, Tom's duet and dance with Gideon, is sheer magic, as are the ballads over which they find peace: Ghost Story and then August Winds.
There is some extraordinary singing from Jimmy Nail who, well, nails the part of Jackie White, the mountain of a man who leads the shipbuilders. He produces a tough, unyielding character, but one it is impossible not to like and the final evocative image of the show works well largely because of his solid turn. His voice is like a foghorn, a thing of wonder and raw power.
Fred Applegate must be looking a likely contender for a Tony Award for his superb performance as Father O'Brien, the community's spiritual leader, who cares for his flock with a passion and irreverence which, to some eyes, might seem unholy. He drinks, smokes, is not beyond a little embezzlement when a good cause is on the horizon and provides the moral compass for all who encounter him. It's a rich, funny and intensely moving performance. And Applegate's voice is in ship-shape condition, a glorious tenor sound of great appeal and strength. His work in the title song, The Last Ship, and his tender finale, So To Speak, is quite haunting.
As usual, Aaron Lazar makes an impressive mark, his performance precisely judged and winning. He plays Arthur, Meg's current boyfriend and the man who has raised Tom as his own. Hated by the shipbuilders because he left their ranks, and thrown into confusion by Meg's reaction to Gideon's return, it would be easy to turn Arthur into an irrelevance, a cold unhappy man. But Lazar doesn't fall for that; his Arthur is as complex, warm and engaging as Gideon, and it is quite clear why Meg is so torn about the choice she must make. To cap it off, he sings with a golden masculine tone that is just a joy to hear.
Michael Esper makes Gideon a suitably sexy, cocky and totally lost man. Sailing the world has not brought him peace, and Esper makes this clear in subtle ways. It's a performance of great skill and charm, and Esper is certainly equal to the considerable vocal demands of Sting's score. All This Time introduces his character with gusto, but I especially liked the way his singing across the course of the show matched the changes in the character's perspective. It will be a very hard heart that is not moved by his work in the final stages of the second Act; it's all beautifully judged, true and unsentimental.
There is excellent work from the boisterous ensemble - no one here is out of place or not completely focused on making this new musical sail, with joy and feeling.
Rob Mathes' musical direction is first rate and the orchestra produces the score with a salty resonance that perfectly fits the book. It's a cohesive and quite melodious score, packed with energy and opportunity, and Mathes wrings it all out, gently when required and with a fiery spirit on other occasions.
This really is an excellent new musical. Great cast, great score, great characters and a story full of the rawness of life and the hairline between happiness and tragedy. It's not Billy Elliot at the seaside and nor is it Once with ships. It's a unique vision, which turns on love, identity and acceptance. A great night in the theatre.
(c) British Theatre by Stephen Collins
Dream Boat: Sting's New Musical, ‘The Last Ship,' Is First-Rate...
Sensational! I usually try to avoid superlatives like that, but if the shoe fits, wear it proudly. The shoe - as well as the costumes, the sets, the beautiful and passionate score by Sting, and the most heart-stopping voices on Broadway that go with it - fits like a charm in The Last Ship, a wonderful, ebullient surprise full of heart and soul that lights up the New York theater season like fresh fireworks. "It's so… gray," groused a woman near me who nevertheless gave it a standing ovation. Well, yes. It takes place in a shipyard! If you want Las Vegas, go elsewhere. But if you want greatness that makes your heart soar with emotion and joy, go to The Last Ship and do it fast.
To tell you the truth, this revelation surprises me. I don't know what I expected. A pop-rock parade of jukebox tunes guaranteed to send me snoozing, I guess. But above all, The Last Ship proves what a versatile, serious and immensely talented artist Sting really is. I've heard him sing with artistry and nuance before, but nothing prepared me for this. (O.K., we share the same birthday, so I already regarded him as a special fellow Libra.) But Sting is so much more, and now I know it.
The triumphant new musical at the Neil Simon Theatre, directed with mountains of skill by Joe Mantello, chronicles memories of the town in Sting's youth, and the hardscrabble lives of the people in it, living and dying in a once-prosperous section of England famous for turning out the great ships that graced the seas in the 1950s. A bloke named Gideon Fletcher, a third-generation member of a proud shipbuilding family who turned his back on tradition, pursued a dream of seeing the world on his own terms and disgraced his father by leaving home to conquer new vistas as a sailor. He left behind a loyal girlfriend named Meg, 15, who was pregnant with a baby Gideon didn't know about, promising to return for her when he made a success of his life in the outside world. Fifteen years later, when he comes home to visit his father's grave as the grownup Gideon (remarkable, charismatic and totally enchanting Michael Esper), he finds the villagers impoverished shells of the men they used to be, the shipyard closed and Meg (golden-voiced Rachel Tucker) working in a saloon with a son to raise, engaged to the well-meaning but unpopular former shipyard worker Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar) who is trying to convince the workers to give up the skills and honors of a dying industry and support their families by selling scrap metal to a wealthy businessman.
Although a failure whose dreams never came true at sea or in port, it's up to Gideon to restore his town's self-respect, shoulder the responsibility for his rebellious teenage son's future, and win Meg's love all over again. How? By re-opening the shipyard and building one last ship the way their forefathers did, the scruffy labor force forms the roughest, toughest gang of stevedores who ever graced a chorus line. With no money or sponsor, they bring out the cables and the welding irons and their industrial tools paid for with funds "diverted" from the church treasury by the colorful, chain-smoking, hard-drinking and beloved parish priest (a merry, scene-stealing Fred Applegate) as the stage fills with a cornucopia of songs, bustle, sparks and heavy-stomping choreography that is fresher than anything on Broadway. I dare you to control the constant urge to stand up cheering.
The metallic scaffolding that turns into a ship ready to christen with champagne by production designer David Zinn is augmented by crude, authentic-looking wooden sets that include a waterfront and a rural pub with real working pumps for ales, lagers and draughts. The pulsating songs provided by Sting extend far beyond his fame as a pop icon to a vast musical canvas of great complexity. The songs embrace heated dance beats, soul-searching, character-driven monologues bordering on arias, and lush ballads that stir the heartstrings. One great number, "When We Dance," is as good as anything I have heard in the theater in decades - a three-part expression of the values and hopes of Meg in which the two men she loves declare their devotion to her in equal measure, laced together in a pas de trios by subtle touches of the hands as the three members of the trio move in and out of meticulous dance movements as tender as connecting tissue. Thrilling to watch, and haunting to hear.
It takes extraordinary talent to bring a show this complex to life, and The Last Ship is populated with talent, half-American and half-British, so intense you won't know where to look or what to watch in order to absorb it all. Everyone is perfect, but I reserve special encomiums for the three stars, the endlessly ingratiating Mr. Esper in particular. He sings like a dream, and moves with the imperfect body of an earthbound person, not a terpsichorean who works out daily in a show-business gym. The men move and turn like real characters you might find in a factory in Leeds. Choreographer Steven Hoggett emerges as another stage discovery with star quality.
All hail The Last Ship. May it sail to glory for seasons to come. I rarely see anything twice, but if I'm lucky, they might invite me to see it again - and often.
(c) New York Observer by Rex Reed
You may be tempted upon leaving Sting's Broadway musical "The Last Ship" to head straight to a pub to drain a pint and sing some sea shanties. Or maybe go weld something. Or do both.
Such are the foot-stomping, testosterone-filled feelings that emerge from the Neil Simon Theatre, where a blast of British working class camaraderie among steel workers has docked during these times when we only construct things from Ikea.
"The Last Ship" has some powerful performances, some outstanding songs, real heart and a creative team that uses every inch of the stage in thrilling ways. Perhaps there's a bit of bloat and far too many sea references, but when it works, it does so brilliantly.
The show is Sting's semi-autobiographical story about a prodigal son who returns to his northern England shipbuilding town to reclaim the girl - and a son - he abandoned when he fled 15 years before. The shipyard, meanwhile, is closing and the workers are divided over the future. The show is about loss and letting go.
Michael Esper ("American Idiot") plays the hero, somehow making a man potentially unlikable into someone melancholy and sick at heart. Rachel Tucker is fiery and strong and superb as his love interest, both protective and vibrant. Jimmy Nail is a great as the softhearted foreman with a gruff exterior, and Fred Applegate is irrepressibly good as a profane priest.
Steven Hoggett's special brand of choreography - unexpected dancers swaying in unison, slo-mo kicks - is particularly effective here. As he's done in "Once," and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," he turns the un-lithe and the downright rotund into lighter-than-air expressions of dreamlike movement.
The project began as a CD and PBS concert special before it was turned into a stage version. Sting drew on his childhood, growing up in Newcastle's Wallsend neighborhood, near the Swan Hunter shipyards. David Zinn's sets are not surprisingly all about steel girders and ladders and gates and rust-stained hulls. There's even rain and acetylene torches.
Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning lyricist Brian Yorkey ("Next to Normal") and Tony-winner John Logan ("Red") wrote the book, plugging into the noble honor and passion of men and women who build things without romanticizing everyone. A love triangle at the story's heart is deftly navigated, with no one cartoonishly evil. They've even salted the script with references to domestic violence.
Tony-winner Joe Mantello ("Wicked") directs with the skill of a master craftsman: Adrenalin-fueled scenes of men at each others' throats are flawlessly followed by candlelit, tender ones. He manages to steer away from simple, sticky-sweetness and stabs at an aching wistfulness, aided by gloomy, evocative lighting by Christopher Akerlind.
Sting's stage composing is nicely complex, mixing sassy ballads with brooding duets and big, violin-led crowd pleasers. Outstanding are "Dead Man's Boots" and "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance," which here is wonderfully staged between a father and son behind bars, and the simply beautiful title track, which the creators clearly know is good: It's leaned on no less than four times.
Some songs on the CD never made it to the stage and Sting opened his rich catalog for some repurposing. You'll hear "Ghost Story" from the album "Brand New Day," ''Island of Souls" and "All This Time" from "The Soul Cages" and "When We Dance" from "Fields of Gold."
What's remarkable is the old tunes fit flawlessly, proof Sting's songs have always been built of strong stuff and often reached back to his hometown. The writers also have plundered imagery from Sting's old lyrics to build their story, particularly "Island of Souls."
Broadway has something of a crush with the Irish and English right now. There's "Once" and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" and "Matilda" and "Kinky Boots." Hopefully there's room for another, an unlikely moving musical about shipbuilders. We'll raise a pint to that.
(c) Associated Press by Mark Kennedy
Sting revisits roots in buoyant, moving 'Last Ship'...
The lesson of The Last Ship (***½ out of four), the poignant, exuberant new musical that opened Sunday at the Neil Simon Theatre, is that you can go home again. And again.
Sting, the show's composer and lyricist, released an album in 1991, The Soul Cages, inspired by his youth in Wallsend, a shipbuilding town in northeast England, and his complicated relationship with his father, who had recently died. Ship is set in Wallsend, and its protagonist, Gideon Fletcher - not a huge stretch from Sting's given name, Gordon Sumner - is a prodigal son who, having traveled widely, returns to mourn his dad's passing.
Three songs from Sting's catalog, including two from Cages, have been repurposed for the show. Ship's British, working-class terrain may seem familiar, too, if you've seen The Full Monty, Billy Elliot or Kinky Boots.
But Gideon's story, which actually bears little resemblance to Sting's (the character never gets rich or famous, for starters), feels far more original than that of most contemporary musical heroes. Its subjects include different kinds of love, romantic and familial, explored by the pop star and his collaborators, librettists John Logan and Brian Yorkey and director Joe Mantello, with wit and imagination.
When Gideon, played by a robust, likable Michael Esper, searches for Meg, the girl he left behind 15 years ago - to become a sailor, rather than follow his dad into the shipbuilding trade - he finds a single mother, whose son, Tom, happens to be 15. Meg also has a beau, Arthur, a former shipbuilder promoted to a corporate position, who is blazingly decent, and devoted to Tom.
After it's announced that the shipyard will close down, to make way for cheaper labor, the worldly community priest, Father O'Brien, persuades the workers to defy their former employers and build their own ship. Gideon, disarmed by their pluck and desperate to win Meg back, swallows his ambivalence and joins them. So does Tom, fueling the rivalry between Gideon and Arthur.
There is some hokum along the way, with earthy ladies and gents carousing and clashing in the local pub. But Stephen Hoggett's choreography also evokes the raw vitality and rough grace of these characters to exhilarating effect. The men leap and soar as an extension of their unmannered virility, not in defiance of it, while the women - particularly Rachel Tucker's feisty, touching Meg - move with a sensual confidence that can't be taught in class.
The songs are melodically and emotionally vital, offering potent vehicles for performers such as the wonderful Fred Applegate, cast as Father O'Brien, and Jimmy Nail, who plays a crusty veteran laborer, and whose smoky but siren-like voice evokes Sting's more nearly than Esper's.
By the deeply affecting final scene, Gideon, Meg and the others have learned that love, in all of its forms, can involve letting go - of grievances, dreams, even people. That's hardly a novel concept, but The Last Ship makes it feel surprisingly fresh.
(c) USA Today by Elysa Gardner
Sting's score for this show about a shipbuilding town in decline is riveting, even if the plot isn't...
Sting brings it.
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.
Chalk it up to beginner's luck. Or to decades of experience writing songs that tell stories. Either way, the rich and lively score, which includes two songs from earlier solo work, courses with meaning and emotion.
The outstanding Michael Esper plays Gideon Fletcher, a character loosely based on the youthful Sting. He's joined by an impressive cast, which breathes full-blooded life into broadly drawn characters.
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. The main story follows Gideon, a restless young man in a shipbuilding town where the industry is dying. He flees his ailing and abusive father and, regrettably, his girlfriend.
Fifteen years later, Gideon comes home. That lass, Meg (Rachel Tucker, fiery and magnetic), has a new love, Arthur (Aaron Lazar, who adds virility and sweetness), who's gotten ahead by getting out of shipbuilding. Meg is torn between them.
Meanwhile, shipbuilders vow to build one last vessel for solidarity's sake. Foreman Jackie White (Jimmy Nail, mournful and majestic), his wife, Peggy (Sally Ann Triplett), and a local priest (Fred Applegate) lead the charge.
The romantic triangle is sincere and deft. The shipbuilding plot, as presented here, is implausible and daft.
Fortunately, when the story threatens to capsize, there's another good song by Sting to shore up the show.
(c) New York Daily News by Joe Dziemianowicz