Not to be foolishly subtle about it: If a better new musical than The Last Ship appears on the horizon this Broadway season, tuner lovers best consider themselves extravagantly lucky.
The production, at the Neil Simon, with score by Sting, libretto by Tony winners John Logan and Brian Yorkey, direction by Tony winner Joe Mantello and choreography by Steven Hoggett, has just about everything musical advocates crave. It also boasts just about everything longtime Sting partisans would hope he'd bring to a Broadway stage.
Just to get even more enthusiastic: The Last Ship has huge heaps of something the Great White Way has been missing for far too long when characters sing: emotion that penetrates far more than several fathoms deep. Perhaps that's only appropriate for a work about ocean-going ships.
Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper) returns from a hometown absence--he'd walked out on girlfriend Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker) and abusive father Joe Fletcher (Jamie Jackson) 15 years earlier--thinking he'll pick up his life where he left off. Things have radically changed, however, with Meg now attached to loyal and ambitious Arthur Millburn (Aaron Lazar) and a mother to Tom Dawson (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), who's the son Gideon doesn't know about.
On a larger scale, the shipbuilding business has dried up in North England's Wallsend with the only jobs available for the down-at-heel men offered by a salvage company to which Arthur has defected and thereby alienated his former co-workers. Rallying them is Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), who's encouraged by scatological Father O'Brien (Fed Applegate) to defy the salvage company and break onto their verboten construction grounds for erecting one last ship.
As a result, complications inevitably arise. What will become of the incipient Gideon-Meg-Arthur triangle? Which father will win Tom's primary affection? How will the lads fare at their off-limits endeavor? Much of the unfolding action and eventual solution to these questions takes place either at the shipyard or in a neighborhood bar where the men and several women hang out, notably Peggy White (Sally Ann Triplett) and proprietress Beatrice Dees (Shawna M. Hamic).
Perhaps the best part of The Last Ship is that it has a big heart. There are all the personal relationships, and there's the town's dedication to an industry that's been harshly wrenched from them.
Expressing those heart-felt feelings is where Sting makes an astounding first Broadway impression. There's a contemporary folk feeling to the numbers that the man's fans will instantly recognize. At the same time, the rock icon has closely tailored the items to the characters singing them. It's the sort of craftsmanship that'll guarantee tears coming to the eyes of at least some audience members. "August Winds," "When We Dance," "It's Not the Same Moon" and the title tune only begin to reflect Sting's accomplishments.
And there are the boisterous company ditties, many of them enhanced by Hoggett's steps. Incidentally, Hoggett--whose American idiot, Once and Rocky precede this assignment--is shaping an instantly recognizable style. It could be said that "The Right Foot Hoggett Stomp" is a staple, as is "The Gravity-Defying Hoggett Lean." Theatergoers expecting to see the moves won't be disappointed.
There is a small problem with The Last Ship, though it's not so serious it can't be forgiven in consideration of how much is worth applauding. It has to do with how the men get away with completing their goal on a site from which they've been locked out. Their breaching the confines, though initially confronted, is then pretty much forgotten by the book writers. Much later, it's implied--but never confirmed--that the current landowners have chosen to look the other way.
Still, The Last Ship is so solidly enthralling that it's the kind of enterprise where everyone contributing to it must be praised. Among them are set and costume designer David Zinn, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, sound designer Brian Ronan and special effects designer Gregory Meeh. They've collaborated on the darkly dramatic look of the production with its metal riggings and fences and the rolling waters projected.
Copious thanks to fight consultant Ron Piretti, dialogue coach Ben Furey and Craig Burns at Telsey and Company, who rounded up an ensemble that looks exactly right when singing the evocative Sting songs, dancing "The Right Foot Hoggett Stomp" and acting.
The cast members playing the focal parts are all equally moving. There's no need to single out any of them when Esper as "the son of a son of a riveter," Tucker, Kelly-Sordelet, Lazar, Applegate and Nail so fully understand and set forth the riveting (pun intended, of course), story.
No one giving in to the appeal of The Last Ship will be called to task for thinking it has a lot in common with Billy Elliot, which also closely follows a North England community shattered by a work breakdown. But the score for this one is inspired by a participant. Sting--real name Gordon Summer--was born in Wallsend where his father was a shipbuilder and expected him to join the trade. (Book writer Logan's father was a Belfast shipbuilder.)
Notice that the name Gideon is almost but not quite an anagram of Gordon. So the plangent, pungent nature of the score--and a book that very much involves a father, son and grandson discovering the ties that bind them overcoming the strains that estrange--has to be attributed to autobiographical inspiration.
With the help of a slickly collaborating team, presided over by director Mantello, Sting is telling his story--or at least as he feels the need to fictionalize it. He recounted it more personally in concert at the Public Theater last year. Whatever the presentation, it's a tale profoundly rewarding in the telling and the hearing.