THE BLOG
12/21/2014 10:10 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2015

First Nighter: Sting in "The Last Ship," Barney Josephson and "Café Society Swing"

In his first-rate autobiographical musical The Last Ship, Sting -- also Gordon Sumner, son of a ship builder -- has come full circle, after a fashion.

By joining the cast, at the Neil Simon, for a month (through January 24 and in an admitted move to boost box office), he's now inhabiting David Zinn's design for a shipyard and figuratively echoing the protagonist of a show for which he's written the strong and exciting score and for which John Logan and Brian Yorkey have supplied a libretto based in great part on the rock star's history.

Both Gideon (note the similarity to Gordon), played stirringly by Michael Esper, and Sting are men who leave their heritage behind to seek an all-together different life elsewhere. In The Last Ship, Gideon returns to his abandoned Wallsend after his shipbuilding father has died. Once back and expecting to pick up with the girlfriend he left behind, he encourages the now out-of-work local men to build a final sea-going carrier.

And now Sting is helping to depict the rousing, life-affirming incident. How perfectly fitting. Not only is he on board, so to speak, he's giving a masterful performance as Jackie White, one of the community leaders. No one needs to be informed that Sting has a gritty, vulnerably invulnerable voice--and as songwriter can often be considered the best interpreter of his material--nor does anyone need to be told he's a strong actor.

Bearded and looking even taller on stage, he sings and acts at the top of his form. And get this: The gentleman that he obviously is, he doesn't push his star status to take the last curtain call. He takes it third from last, when Jimmy Nail--who will resume playing Jackie White when Sting departs--bowed.

That means he comes on before before Esper and Rachel Tucker, who appears as Meg Dawson, the woman to whom Gideon returns 15 years after leaving her younger version behind to seek his never found fortune. It needs to be noted that Esper and Tucker are giving the same tough performances I saw on the pre-opening press night.

It may be that they, like the rest of the performers, well chosen by director Joe Mantello and choreographer Steven Hoggett, are even better at their tasks now, especially Aaron Lazar, Fred Applegate, Sally Ann Triplett and Collin Kelly-Sordelet--and they were stellar to begin with.

It may also be that Sting's score is more moving than ever, particularly "August Winds," which could, when the current season ends, stand as the best song written for the season. What a subtle stunner it is, right up there as one of Sting's very best with "Every Breath You Take" and "Fields of Gold."

Incidentally, aside being perhaps the only song ever written containing the word "albeit," it includes the lyric, "I can't explain the reasons why it moves me close to tears." In the show, the song is sung by Meg Dawson and concerns her longing for the vanished Gideon.

Sting has recorded it on his "Last Ship" CD. When he does it, it's hard not to think the reasons why he's counting ships as they go out to sea is his own unbreakable ties to his missing past, to his upbringing. As I say, "August Winds" is a superlative ballad, and I, for one, can explain the reasons why it moves me close to tears.

*************************************************
Full disclosure: the late Barney Josephson, who founded the ground-breaking Café Society at 1 Sheridan Square in New York City's Greenwich Village, was related to me by marriage.

Although I was never in Café Society or its eventual uptown branch, Café Society Uptown, I used to drop in on him when he was running The Cookery at the northeast corner of University Place and 8th Street (now a bank). He was always charming. always ready to talk about any subject that came up but very often about Alberta Hunter, the singer whose career he'd revived in the room and who extended an initial two-week gig to six years.

So I was eager to see Café Society Swing, the retrospective revue put together by Alex Webb and directed by Simon Green and now at 59E59 Theatres. It's an odd entertainment, during which the singers Alan Harris, Charenee Webb and Cyrill Aimée reprise songs associated with performers whom Josephson featured in his clubs where, at his insistence, the audience was as racially mixed as the performers--Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Zro Mostel, among them--on stage.

Be aware that the reprises are done to a crisp and subtle turn, especially Harris's version of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," Wade's version of Lewis Allen's "Strange Fruit" and Aimée's version of "Parlez-Moi D'Amour." The band is hot, too, with Harris on guitar, Benny Benack III on trumpet, Mimi Jones on bass, Shirazette Tinnin on drums, Camille Thurman on tenor sax, Bill Todd on alto sax and clarinet, Brent White on trombone and Webb at the piano.

Incidentally, many of the songs are attributed to "Webb" in the program and are likely creator-pianist Webb's. They're okay, but it might have paid off more richly had other songs from the Café Society and Café Society Uptown era been included instead.

Apparently in an effort to give the revue more of a play feel, Webb has Evan Pappas impersonate a Walter Winchell-like columnist in the first act and a Café Society bartender in the second. By that method, he could insert biographical information on Josephson, who was well known to be associated with the Communist Party--as were many in those days who'd be categorized as liberals now..

Nothing said sounds anything but accurate to someone who knew Barney's story as the family knew it. Nevertheless, the dramatics here are awkward. Again, better to let the music speak on Josephson's behalf.