The Last Ship

What've we got? It's not now't, that's for sure. The new, original musical, The Last Ship, has set sail on Broadway and I love it.

Conceived by Sting, the personal musical features a score by the rocker and a book by Brian Yorkey (If/Then, Next to Normal) and John Logan (Red). It tells the story of Gideon Fletcher (Michael Esper), who is returning to his working-class hometown of Wallsend (in the northeast of England) after turning his back 15 years ago. Wallsend is a blue-collar company town where the men build ships and everyone is family. Times are tough and the shipyard has closed; not knowing what to do with themselves, the men decide to build one last ship.

While the town is struggling to find its identity, Gideon is struggling to find his home. He rejected the notion of following in the footsteps of his father and his father's father and so on; he did not want to be a ship builder, and so he fled Wallsend, leaving behind his love, Meg Dawson (Rachel Tucker). When he hears his father has died, he returns to bury the man but, of course, he has other unfinished business. This story of fathers and sons proves that while you may not be able to go home again, it's never too late to discover the home you didn't know you had.

Writing for pop radio and writing for the stage are different beasts, so it's understandable that while Sting has been writing songs for decades, some might be skeptical about him writing a Broadway score. No worries here. With The Last Ship, he makes an impressive Broadway debut, proving his skills as a masterful storyteller. The evocative lyrics and the culturally specific rhythms and instruments used combine for a memorably emotional, effective and powerful score. The songs reveal depth of character, allowing us to truly connect with the beautifully drawn characters, even if we can't directly relate to their lives.

And that's the power of theatre—musical or otherwise. It's the power to develop an emotional connection with someone or something outside of your own experience; to expose us to different ideas and ways of life, and to challenge us to think differently or more deeply about our own ideas and ways of life. The Last Ship does this with stunning alacrity and pride. The music, story and characters get into your bones, resonating with our basic human need to find our family.

Of course a great score and a funny and touching book are just notes and words on a page. It takes an entire creative team and cast to realize it on stage. A key player on the team is choreographer Steven Hoggett (American Idiot, Rocky), who does so well with unconventional choreography. Obviously The Last Ship does not feature traditional dance numbers; instead, Hoggett is tasked with making burly, meat-and-potatoes men dance, and it's fantastic. The movements are industrial. It feels authentic; these are people who eschew pomp and circumstance, and favor a hard day's work followed by a strong pint. Hoggett has his men (and women) stomping around, enhancing beats with tin lunch pails. They move about as if building a ship—no out of place pirouettes here. (And a couple numbers are reminiscent of "It's a Fine Life" and "Oom-Pah-Pah," from Oliver; times for the community to gather together and rejoice.)

These salt of the earth people are playing on a seemingly simple but versatile set designed by David Zinn (who also designed the costumes). The front of the thrust stage is like the hull of the ship, jutting out into the audience. Understated set pieces move in and out and around, keeping the story going. Director Joe Mantello (Casa Valentina)'s staging is enhanced by Christopher Akerlind's beautiful lighting design, which is used to tell the story as much as the libretto.

The creative elements combine to support the work of an impressive cast. Jimmy Nail is Jackie White, the foreman of the shipyard. He looks exactly like what you think the foreman of a shipyard looks like, and the multi-platinum recording artist and Golden Globe- and BAFTA-nominated actor, writer and producer is a strong presence on stage. (Jackie's wife is the feisty Peggy, played with zest by Sally Ann Triplett.)

There isn't a villain, per se, in The Last Ship, but Arthur Millburn is Jackie and Gideon's adversary. Played by Aaron Lazar (A Little Night Music, concert soloist), Arthur works for a company that has bought the shipyard. He is also Meg's boyfriend, which pits him against Gideon. (The three tangle in the terrific, "When We Dance," one of only two Sting "catalog" songs to appear in the show.) What I like about Lazar's portrayal and the way the character is written is that he truly isn't the villain. He's a person who's made different choices in his life, but his intentions are good. And you will simply swoon when he woos Meg (the strong Rachel Tucker) in "What Say You, Meg?"

But I've been saving the best for last, dear readers. Michael Esper steps into the leading man role and turns in his strongest, most sensitive, layered and captivating performance to date. I first fell for Esper in American Idiot, and continued to be impressed by him in each successive performance, including The Lyons and, most recently, Tales from Red Vienna. The singing actor is exactly the kind of talent needed for a role like Gideon. Gideon is a different kind of musical theatre leading man—not a broad comedy guy but a strong, contemplative, round and dynamic character. Esper, with his vocal prowess and fine-tuned acting skills, fully colors Gideon, and is an incredibly appealing leading man.

The Last Ship is the first great musical of the season, and I hope it stays docked in Broadway's harbor for a long time.


Cast photos (from top: Rachel Tucker, Jimmy Nail, Aaron Lazar and Michael Esper) all taken from the show's website. Visit thelastship.com to learn more about the musical and to purchase tickets.

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