“Look at us: Are we not beautiful?” sing the cast of proud British shipyard workers and their community of Wallsend, Newcastle upon Tyne in the Northeast of England.
Yes, union brothers and sisters, you are beautiful indeed. Your passion, your working-class solidarity, your expertise at what you do, your bold resistance, your integrity, your love of life, your soaring voices and harmonies, your lyrical poetry. Not to mention the gorgeous stage set and projections, and that fresh-sounding, uplifting music.
And thanks, too, for the terrific sound system that made (almost) every word audible and understandable. We appreciate the historical timeline in the program, the glossary of local “Geordie” words and phrases we might ha’ missed, and most especially this comradely consideration: “For this production, we are not using the broadest of accents, but we have retained some of the wonderful sound and words of the North East.” Bless you! How many “regional” plays have I attended where the dialect consultants were so punctilious about getting the local pronunciation right that the audience could only understand every fifth word!
The Last Ship had a long gestation. It was initially inspired by Sting’s 1991 album The Soul Cages, and it’s based on the very place he was born. The Tony-nominated original score includes some of his best-loved songs, “Island of Souls,” “All This Time” and “When We Dance.” Giving an extra commercial oomph to the production, the 68-year-old, 17-time Grammy winner himself stars as shipyard foreman Jackie White, and appears in every performance.
Earlier versions of the musical have been produced in the U.K., Canada, and New York (in 2014), receiving a lukewarm reception. It now sports a new book (and direction) by the versatile British theatre artist Lorne Campbell, based on the original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Minor characters have been cut, and the Sting role of Jackie White has been centered.
The musical is fundamentally a thrilling, suspenseful labor epic wrapped around a love story. It’s 1986, and Gideon Fletcher (Joseph Peacock as the Young Gideon, played as an adult by Oliver Savile) returns home after 17 years at sea to find that the local shipyard, which is the raison d’être of his town, is closing owing to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s anti-labor, neoliberal policies. His teenage girlfriend Meg Dawson (Jade Sophia Vertannes as the younger, Frances McNamee as the adult), the love he left behind, has moved on with her life, resentful for being abandoned at the age of 16.
The almost finished ship Utopia cannot be completed because the company that commissioned it has gone bankrupt, and there are no buyers to be found for the hulk as it exists. Ships like this one are being built in foreign ports at a fraction of the cost. The deal offered to the 2000-strong workforce is that the first 500 of them who show up will be rehired the next morning to dismantle what is now essentially valueless junk into scrap. This is understandably a hard bargain for the union to accept: “We’re the ship makers, not the ship breakers.”
Labor activists and advocates will sit on the edges of their seats wondering how this story will unfold. In a move parallel to the action of the classic Hollywood Blacklist-era film Salt of the Earth - did Sting possibly get the idea from that, or from the actual historical events? - the women of the community step in heroically to advance the cause. “You are what you do,” they tell management. “Send in your dogs or call them off.”
Other members of the 18-person ensemble take on important individual roles. Jackie Morrison is Peggy White, wife of Sting’s Jackie; Sophie Reid plays Ellen Dawson, a teenage musician with rockstar ambitions for Red Ellen and the Pirate Daughters; Marc Akinfolarin plays Adrian Sanderson, ship’s carpenter with a penchant for quoting classic poetry; Joe Caffrey plays Billy Thompson, the radical union representative who cites Marx and favors the direct-action, seize-the-means-of-production tactics of the anarcho-syndicalists (first time I’ve heard that term in a Broadway musical); Matt Corner portrays a pugilistic young hard-drinking man whose faith with the union cause is shaky at best; Orla Gormley plays Mrs. Dees, a barkeep who imparts her wisdom about love, marriage and men to the other women of Wallsend; Sean Kearns as the slimy Freddy Newlands representing management; and Annie Grace as the iron lady Baroness Tynedale from the Ministry of Trade and Industry, a stand-in for Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” ideology, who urges the workers to be pragmatic and get used to their new “expendable” status for the good of the nation.
As anti-labor policies have come to dominate the NATO world, theatre, including the musical stage, has not lagged in critiquing the anti-humanness of neoliberalism. In the old days, it was Marc Blitzstein’s play in music The Cradle Will Rock, Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and the musicals Pins and Needles and The Pajama Game. In times closer to our own it’s been such plays as Other People’s Money, Sweat, Skeleton Crew, Ironbound, and the ten-part series of dramas about African-American life in America by August Wilson.
It can’t be overlooked, either, that one of the most famous rockstars, Elton John, gave us another powerhouse musical about the Margaret Thatcher era, the acclaimed and widely loved Billy Elliot.
A play or musical is not likely to spark a revolution, but it can certainly heighten political awareness through militant anthems, chants, and hymns to pride of place and dignity of labor. While I found the music stirring and even universal in its reach, what I found equally impressive are the lyrics. Even outside of song, the musicated speech is frequently expressed in organized couplets. I could not help thinking I would like to read these words as literature of the unstoppable, timeless working class - clear and unpretentious, but still poetical, intimate and elevated in tone.
The song “Island of Souls,” which is recapitulated a couple of times, is about that place where these working folks’ souls will go after death. It’s a sad, but collectively comforting reminder that the work that labor achieves will long outlive any individual life. We who inhabit the celebrity culture need to reminded of that: Celebrities will come and go, rise and sink, get rich and go bankrupt, fall in and out of love. But our honest work will stand for generations, centuries, even millennia, as tribute to our common endeavor.
The Last Ship features a set design by 59 Productions, the multi award-winning studio behind the video design of the London 2012 Olympic Games, Les Misérables and War Horse. Around a basic scaffold alongside the ship under construction are multiple stairways, ladders, and platforms where the artists appear, with weather, crashing waves and more building equipment suggested by film projection. On stage level, interior spaces - homes, a church, a barroom - suddenly appear as if by magic. In one particular clever trio of male voices, the young Gideon is seen behind a scrim rejecting a pair of his father’s lovingly passed-on boots, as the boy does not want to be condemned to such a life in the yards, while in the foreground the present-day Gideon reflects on the consequences of his decisions.
There is even a wise duet between Meg and Ellen Dawson about such choices, moments that “can split the world in two,” that “stretch out to infinity.” We never can go back to some original state: “It’s not the same moon in the sky.”
The musical supervision and orchestrations by Emmy Award-winning, Drama Desk-, Tony- and Grammy-nominated arranger/composer/producer Rob Mathes are stunning. A great deal of the score is choral, befitting a work about the masses’ collective work and action. A daring choral ensemble not afraid of its moneyed patrons might well adapt some of these vigorously composed scenes into an effective Lost Ship medley. The harmonies are piquant, scorching and militant.
In fact, though it may seem premature to say so now, I would place The Lost Ship in that category of musicals, along with Porgy and Bess, Street Scene, Regina, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Man of La Mancha, and recently The Light in the Piazza, that have eventually found their way into the opera house as works whose artfulness surpasses their commercial Broadway origins and deserves to be lifted up for higher esthetic consideration.
Musical direction of the seven-piece orchestra is by Richard John. The music perfectly accompanies the singers, never overpowering them, and the singers’ miking works perfectly too. Costume design is by Molly Einchcomb; lighting design is by Matt Daw, and sound design is by Sebastian Frost.
Now before you think I’ve sailed off to heaven on the good ship Utopia, I should add some minor reservations. One - not a reservation as such, but an observation - is that Sting has a prominent, but not the leading role in The Last Ship. He is onstage quite a bit, but his is a kindly, paternal presence, suited to his age and current vocal resources. He may act as the moral center of the drama, but don’t expect fireworks from him. Second, the score, coming in at 2 hours, 45 minutes, is a bit overlong. I was never bored by it and found the stagecraft so entrancing that it was consistently appealing to look it, but in all honesty, it could be trimmed by anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes and probably not suffer any for it.
“Movement director” Lucy Hind (that’s a broader term than “choreographer”) is responsible not only for the management of crowd and group scenes, keeping them all busy and in character, but also for the actual dancing itself. Now, would shipyard workers naturally fall into line and start swinging their partners around or doing vaguely Celtic jigs and stomps at the flip of a downbeat? OK, it’s a musical. Some willing suspension of disbelief is required.
Another self-conscious aspect of the musical genre that creeps in from time to time comes in some of the solos when singers default into crooning Broadway vocal production, particularly in the amorous, yearning songs. A singer will hold out a climactic note too long and too obviously for audience approval. But the proletarian esthetic soon returns, and truly we do forgive all in the ever-pleasing search for love.
The Last Ship runs through February 16. To purchase tickets, visit CenterTheatreGroup.org, call (213) 972-4400, or visit the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012.
In a special tribute to the labor movement and the power of collective action, the Ahmanson is offering $49 tickets to members of all creative and labor unions on Friday, January 31. Those tickets, regularly priced at $90-$120, can be reserved in advance but must be picked up at the Will Call with Union ID. Use promo code UNION to buy tickets now.
The company is appearing with the support of Actor’s Equity Association. For more information on the production and a video sneak peek, including a poignant memoir of Sting growing up in Wallsend, visit thelastshipmusical.com.
(c) People's World by Eric A. Gordon