Lately it seems that before you can even pull a room temperature pint, there’s another “working class” British musical rolling into town. Small industrial towns (having seen better days) apparently are where hardscrabble dancers and designers are born. Perhaps Broadway has become the yin to television’s posh yang of Downton Abbey and Selfridges. No one would blame you for taking one and only one look at the press releases for Sting’s The Last Ship. Enough already! But I assure you, you would regret that decision. The Last Ship is how you remember (false memory or not) musicals to be. It is moving and soaring, with dance and music that serves the story.
It is a recognizable story, one perhaps with its roots in earlier theatre – edgy son, disappointed father, abandoned love and child, redemption. There is nothing particular unusual or revelatory about the book (John Logan and Brian Yorkey) it’s simply solid and moving. It is the firm foundation for what is ostensibly a light opera. A small town has lost its only industry (ship building,) out of work and hope the men have a chance to build one last ship together. But of course it is the love story buried in the welding and winching that will break your heart. The music and lyrics (Sting) are rich, understandable and at times quite stirring. The orchestration (Rob Mathes) fills the theatre and at times transforms what very well could be considered pub music into a score. While the direction (Joe Mantello) of this large cast is superb, it is the choreography (Steven Hoggett) that brings The Last Ship to an entirely new level.
The movements are natural yet entirely rhythmic throughout the production. Set changes become dance, and the dances are so deceptively simple they are just life. Many in the large chorus are hefty blokes and to watch them move is a delight. The movement/dance suits the characters and the story and seems to be continuously in play. When the characters dance it is merely an extension of their expression. This naturalism is how they sing as well.
Nobody bursts into a number in The Last Ship. All the singing comes organically from dialogue. The character Jackie White (Jimmy Nail) actually talk/sings (a la Rex Harrison) his way through solos until joined by a chorus. It is a very effective use of his rich baritone and his role as the foreman. Gideon, the wayward son is played by two actors, the younger (Collin Kelly-Soredelet) also playing the son of Meg (Rachel Tucker.) Sound confusing? It’s not. The elder Gideon (Michael Esper) is a strong presence and it’s always clear who is who. The women are splendid but this really is a men’s show. One man practically steals it in the role of Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate.) It’s a delicious role and storyline and Mr. Applegate is just delightful.
The set (David Zin) is stark, clever, effective and serves the actors and the story. There is also some very clever lighting (Christopher Akerlind) that works as additional set. If there is any flaw at all in this production it is one song that doesn’t quite belong. I believe it’s a recycled Top 40 (of Sting’s) and I leave it to you to discover it. To find it is tantamount to finding a tiny crack in a masterpiece; it makes you appreciate the mastery even more.