Sting's "The Last Ship" gets magnificent Chicago launch...
When: Through July 13
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayIn Chicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
They are calling it a new Broadway musical. But that is a misnomer. Sting's "The Last Ship," which received its much-anticipated world premiere in Chicago on Wednesday night, is an old-fashioned grand opera of the most eloquent sort - awash in both turbulent emotions and intimate dramatic gestures.
A true masterwork, it not only keens a ravishing dirge for a lost way of life, and the indomitable spirit of the working class as it continues to stagger through this post-industrial age. But as it spins an eternal tale of the tensions between fathers and sons (and yes, a "holy ghost" of sorts, too), as well as the ardor and disappointments of love, the opposing pull of home and "away," and the need for some form of faith along with ennobling work, it magnifies the human heartbeat, and captures a genuine sense of the yearning that keeps people going.
A monumental achievement on countless levels, "The Last Ship" is driven by Sting's ravishing score (gorgeously orchestrated by Rob Mathes). But it is buoyed by an expertly nuanced book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, seamless direction by Joe Mantello and his character-defining choreographer, Steven Hoggett, a fiercely real ensemble of actors, and a muscular dream of a set by David Zinn, magically lit by Christopher Akerlind.
In an age of empty spectacle, this show stands out for its magnificent authenticity. It dazzles through the power of the very substantial people and situations it portrays. And as beautiful as its fluid melodies may be (Scots-Irish folk tunes, wonderfully adult romantic ballads, Kurt Weill-like "sagas"), they are driven by Sting's easily poetic lyrics. And not at all incidentally, one of the great miracles of this production is the fact that every word and lyric is crystal clear; the characters truly speak to each other (and us).
In an intriguing way, "The Last Ship" can be seen as something of Sting's very English (quasi-autobiographical) riff on that New England-based Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, "Carousel."
Set in Wallsend, the seacoast town in the Northeast of England where shipbuilding was a way of life for several generations, the story is driven by two main events.
One is the imminent closing of the shipyard - a place that supplied dignity and purpose, as well as paychecks, to most of the town's inhabitants, even if their hardscrabble lives were far from ideal. The other is the return home, after an absence of 15 years, of Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper, who does a superb job of suggesting the enduring adolescent streak in a character who is much like "Carousel's" Billy Bigelow).
Gideon has come to bury the father whose way of life in the shipyard he rejected when, as a rebellious teenager, he headed off to sea. He also still aches for Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker, a stunning redhead who burns up the stage), the girl he left behind. But Meg is a woman now, and though the flame of first love still burns, too much has happened in the interim.
The town comes alive with scenes that move from the shipyard, to the river's edge, to the church and the pub and the graveyard, with a great assemblage of multi-dimensional characters along the way. Among them are Jackie White. the shipyard's veteran foreman (tall, thin, weathered Jimmy Nail, whose voice comes with many echoes of Sting); his wife, Peggy, the shipyard nurse (formidable Sally Ann Triplett); Meg's devoted partner, Arthur Millburn, who escaped the shipyard in his own way (skillfully played by Aaron Lazar); Meg's teenage son, Tom (a winning Collin Kelly-Sordelet); and the exuberant blue collar wife, Mrs. Dees (Shawna M. Hamic). But it is Broadway veteran Fred Applegate who often comes close to stealing the show in the role of Father O'Brien, the irreverent parish priest who is a true man of the people.
Tom's initial encounter with Gideon could use a bit more bite, and the men's construction of "the last ship" of dreams seems too rapid-fire. But these are minor quibbles in a show of overall radiance in which ordinary people are just trying to get through life with some sense of dignity, pride and control over their own destiny.
This past winter, in a joint concert with Paul Simon (who was in the opening night audience, along with another masterful songwriter, James Taylor), Sting sang Simon's anthemic "America," using it to suggest his own time as a young musician visiting this country. With "The Last Ship," which is headed to New York this fall, he will leave an indelible imprint on that most American of art forms, the Broadway musical. A most imposing vessel has been christened.
(c) Chicago Sun-Times by Hedy Weiss