"The Last Ship" at the Neil Simon Theatre
In The Last Ship rock star/actor/songwriter Sting honors his childhood home where shipbuilding was both the economic backbone, and the emotional sinew that kept the town together. The show is a dark, but loving, paean to community and family, a Capra-esque, morality tale with characters who are either good—on the side of those wanting to build “the last ship”—or bad—those working for the evil capitalists who have bought the shipyard. It has a simplistic book by John Logan & Brian Yorkey, buoyed by an expensively dark and dreary production, with only a few flashes of light and color mostly from Sting’s songs which range from stomping pub ensemble numbers to churchy hymns to sweet love songs with an occasional stop at full-throttle sexy.
The Last Ship is about young Gideon Fletcher (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) who is tired of being abused by his father and wants a better future. He abandons his hometown of Wallsend for points unknown, leaving behind his girl, Meg Dawson (Dawn Cantwell), pregnant and alone. He returns 15 years later—now played by Michael Esper—to the double whammy of the shutdown of the shipyard and the realization that he’s been a dad all those years he was at sea. Adult Meg (Rachel Tucker) is being wooed by the man, Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar), who represents those who caused the plant to fold. They want to convert the plant to a salvage site, hiring the unemployed shipbuilders for much lower salaries to sift through scrap metal. The firebrand union leader Jackie White (Jimmy Nail) decides to lead his men to re-take and occupy the shipyard and construct one last ship. This they do with the aid of the local priest, Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate) who manipulates the church building fund to finance what looks like a pipe dream, but winds up binding everyone together, one way or the other. Do they succeed in building the ship? Does Gideon re-unite with Meg and her son Tom? The resolutions of these conflicts provide the parallel plotlines of The Last Ship, filled with lots of local color and salt-of-the-earth camaraderie.
Esper, who sounds uncannily like Sting, makes the surly older Gideon believable, even likeable. Rachel Tucker, as his love interest, Meg, sings and acts with total devotion, her inner conflicts palpable to the last row of the theater. Aaron Lazar’s Arthur is sympathetic and ardent while Jimmy Nail is totally authentic as the union agitator Jackie. Fred Applegate as Father O’Brien, is the one totally delightful character in the show and he savors every moment. In the dual role of the Young Gideon and the son, Tom, Collin Kelly-Sordelet has an ardent quality that stands out. As Young Meg, Dawn Cantwell is convincing in her love for Gideon. She is clearly the young woman who’s passions will turn her into the adult played by Ms. Tucker.
Part of the problem is the specificity of the location. Even though the woes of the poor, put-upon working class are universal, somehow seeing these particular pub-loving, thickly accented folks singing their hearts out in labor anthems and heart-breaking love songs, while breaking into thumping, foot-stomping dances keeps them distant from us. Steven Hoggett’s choreography keeps the energy flowing and Joe Mantello’s direction provides pacing and nuance. The scenery and costumes by David Zinn are almost sadistically monochromatic. Even brilliant stagecraft and lighting can’t make The Last Ship soar, let alone float.
The Last Ship
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd St. (between Broadway & 8th Ave.)
New York, NY
Tickets and Information: www.thelastship.com or 877-250-2929
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission