BWW Chicago Reviews: THE LAST SHIP
Identity, community, work and tradition all figure prominently in "The Last Ship," the new musical which premiered last night at the Bank Of America Theatre in its pre-Broadway tryout (it opens in New York in October). For the most part, this earnest, heartfelt story about a wayward son's return home as the town's lone ship building industry closes shop is sea-worthy, but a few minor tweaks are needed before it sails onto Broadway Glory.
Even with its minor flaws, the show still manages to pack an emotional wallop.
Let's get one thing immediately out of the way, though: 16-time Grammy Award winner Sting has proven himself an able Broadway composer, finding more than a few universal truths in lyric and between the frets of a guitar and atop the black and ivory piano keys.
The show features a plot and rock star composer lineage much like "Billy Elliot" and, more recently, "Kinky Boots." With "Billy Elliot," one always felt that Elton John was paying homage to the style of a Broadway musical. Sting, like "Kinky Boots" composer Cyndi Lauper, has managed to remain true to his vocal and musical stylings while crafting a score that finds a harmonious balance between his rock 'n roll roots and musical theater.
Yes, it is impossible not to hear Sting's voice in certain songs in the score ("Island of Souls" and "Dead Man's Boots," namely), but those moments are few and far between. Other songs (like the superb Act One ballad "What Say You, Meg") would feel in place in traditional scores by Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe.
Gideon Fletcher (a superb Michael Esper) returns to his North East England home town after an absence of 15 years. He has missed his father's funeral (no love lost there; dad -played by Jamie Jackson-- was a drunk who abused him nightly and was disappointed when Gideon opted to stow away on the first freighter he could rather than work in the shipyard). Rather naïvely, he expects to find things as they were when he left. The ship yard has been shuttered and sold to a salvage company, effectively ending what meager livelihood that was had by the working men and women of the town.
What's more, the love of Gideon's life, the feisty Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker, who ignites the stage anytime she is on it) has moved on to a more stable life with Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar, who has the fortune to sing the show's breakout ballad "What Say You, Meg" and sing it well). Tucker is particularly ravishing as she demonstrates how Meg literally clears a room with "If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor." The song lays out fairly clearly that Gideon is not just going to be able to pick up where the couple left off.
Of course, there is also the issue about the son Gideon didn't know he had. Part of Gideon's journey in the show is how he develops a relationship with his son Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). The Act Two duet "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance," is especially touching as Gideon struggles to connect with his son, ultimately finding an in when he teaches Tom how to both fight and dance.
If that weren't enough, the denizens of the town -including the former ship yard foreman Jackie White (Jimmy Nail, who seems to be channeling Sting in vocal styling most in the cast)-view Gideon as a man who turned his back on the town and its traditions when they needed him most.
With the town torn apart by the ship yard shut down and their very faith at risk, the town's priest, Father O'Brien (the humorous and very human Fred Applegate), convinces everyone to come together for one last quest: illegally occupy the ship yard and build one last ship that will symbolize everything the town once stood for.
The book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey (the latter left the project early on), features strong characterization. Every member of the ensemble seems to have a bit of a backstory and through-line. It's the kind of writing that actors dream about. Stand outs include the pub owner Beatrice Dees and former ship yard nurse Peggy White.
It isn't all smooth sailing for the show, though. The opening number "Island of Souls," while succeeding to set the conflict of the show in motion, needs to be tweaked to have more of an emotional impact.
Also in need of some work (or the ax): "When We Dance," a song between Gideon, Meg and Arthur. It feels very much out of place and is made even further awkward with choreography that comes across overtly-sexual. Yes, Meg is torn between her old flame and her current beau, but we don't need to see practically a three-way to understand she's torn. So entwined are the actors in this song, I half expected Gideon and Arthur to share a kiss. That's probably not what director Joe Montello was going for here. If anyone writes slash fiction about Broadway characters, they will find ample fodder for Gideon/Arthur slash in this song as it is currently staged.
The show is in better ship-shape than many other shows that have had pre-Broadway tryouts here. These problems can and probably will be fixed before the show opens on Broadway in the fall.
For Chicago fans of musical theater, it's a rare chance to see a good (and potentially great) new work find its sea legs.
"The Last Ship" runs through July 1at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe. Tickets, $33-$100. Call 800-775-2000. The show begins previews on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 W. 52 St. on Sept. 29 and opens Oct. 26.
"The Last Ship"
Song List at Chicago Opening Night (June 25, 2014)
"And Yet" -Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper)
"August Winds" -Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker)
"If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor" -Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker), Women of Company
"The Last Ship" (Part One) -Father O'Brien (Fred Applegate)
"What Say You, Meg?" -Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar)
"We've Got Now't Else" -Jackie White (Jimmy Nail) Shipyard Men.
"Mrs. Dees' Rant" -Beatrice Dees (Shawna M. Hamic) and Women
"Underground River" -Jackie White (Jimmy Nail) and Company
"The Last Ship" (Finale) --Company