REVIEW: The Last Ship, Neil Simon Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

The Last Ship on Broadway

The cast of The Last Ship. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The Last Ship
Neil Simon Theatre
31 October 2014
5 Stars

It’s Halloween on Broadway. A man with a Horse head mask sits down three rows in front. The woman behind him asks if he will take it off for the performance. His friend tells her, curtly, that Mr Ed was fictional and horses can’t speak. One of the three Elphabas sitting next to the woman laughs. The mood in the auditorium is jocular but uncertain – after all, this is a new musical. Will it be trick or treat?

Skip forward to the curtain call, and as the audience’s enthusiasm for clapping starts to diminish, a lone figure, dressed all in black, bald, but with two perfect black horns adorning his gleaming pate, a glass of whiskey in his hand, ascends from the Pit. He toasts the audience. It is Sting. It’s a great Halloween treat.

He is there because he is the composer and lyricist of The Last Ship, a new musical with a book from John Logan and Brian Yorkey, now having its premiere Broadway season at the Neil Simon Theatre. The production is directed by Joe Mantello and choreographed by Steven Hoggett.

If you are the kind of theatre-goer who only likes dazzling fluff with great dancing and tunes belted for all they are worth, The Last Ship is not going to be your cup of tea. If you are the kind of theatre-goer who likes flashy effects, ear-splitting rock tunes and plots that require no attention, The Last Ship is not going to be your cup of tea. If you are the kind of theatre-goer who only likes musicals that emphasise comedy, romanticise romance and have big, happy endings, The Last Ship is not going to be your cup of tea.

But

If you are the kind of theatre-goer who believes that the musical theatre is capable of anything in the right hands; if you like difficult themes and complex characters; if you enjoy songs which illuminate the personalities, relationships and feelings of the characters singing them; if you don’t mind dark, grim themes that reflect reality; if you appreciate an analysis of hard questions, inventive staging, a score that has a muscular, cohesive wholeness; if you like your musicals performed by people who are actually capable of acting their roles and singing their songs; if that is you, then The Last Ship is a great trick: a real Broadway treat in totally unexpected form.

At its core, The Last Ship is about love, identity and acceptance. A small English town built on the shipbuilding trade, where generations have built ships for buyers all over the world, is the setting. A young headstrong lad refuses to follow his father into ship-building and decides to see the world, as a sailor. He wants his girlfriend to come too, but she refuses, unsure that that is the life she wants. He promises to return for her. Which he does…fifteen years later. (Idiot.)

When he returns, his father has been buried, the shipyard is closed, the men of the town are refusing to abandon their shipbuilding calling, and his girlfriend is happily living with another man (a turncoat to the shipbuilder folk) who has helped her raise her son, the one she had after the young sailor’s departure, the son he never knew he had.

The narrative focuses on whether the sailor and his old girlfriend will re-unite, on whether a son will accept his father (both sets), and whether the town can find itself after losing the livelihood which has sustained generations. It’s a grim, gutsy and compelling story, which, if you embrace it, is insightful, thrilling and memorable.

Mantello and Hoggett stage the action imaginatively and with a great sense of fluidity; scenes roll into each other, just as characters do. Superb lighting from Christopher Akerlind enhances the staging immeasurably. Understandably, the piece feels very masculine, what with bar fights, Union disputes, solidarity of fellow workers and a Priest who can drink with the best of them. Hoggett’s movement reflects this; there is a lot of stamping, pounding and thumping, all of which is very effective.

And all of which contrasts deliciously with the more intimate moments – the transitions from teen to adult, the decisions to be made about what to do with the future, a funeral, the scene where the absent Dad teaches his son to dance, the mother’s aching reminiscences.

In addition, David Zinn’s wonderful, mercurial set design permits over a dozen locations with ease and style, and the final image of the ship sailing away is as powerful and genuinely exciting as they come. It’s all done very simply, the sense of place, like a character, being established as much by the way the actors behave with the set as the design itself.

The most interesting thing about all of this is that, despite a distinct lack of women involved in the production team (Casting seems the one exception), it is the female characters who are the most rounded, most complex and most sensationally performed. Indeed, no matter how it may seem, the entire show is about Meg Watson; she is abandoned and the priest cares for her; the men she loves all come from the world of shipbuilding; the triangle between the three most important men in her life has her at the centre; she works at the pub and lives in the town. One way or another, every aspect of The Last Ship centres on the remarkable woman that is Meg.

Rachel Tucker is spectacularly impressive as Meg Dawson, the girl left behind by Michael Esper’s Gideon. She has a tough, pragmatic exterior which conceals a broken, nay, shattered, heart. But, like a tigress, she will not brook any harm coming to her son. Her singing is phenomenally good, whether belting out the very funny “If You Ever See Me Talking To A Sailor” or deftly handling the ballads, “When We Dance” and “It’s Not The Same Moon”.

She perfectly conveys the confusion to be expected when someone you loved, the father of your child, suddenly pops back into your life declaring his undying love. Her fierce protective love for her son is clear as a bell and the honesty in her indecision and confusion are beautifully portrayed. This Meg is a tough, completely real woman who has endured a hard life with grace and compassion.

Sally Ann Triplett is in fabulous voice as Peggy White, the staunch wife of Jackie, who leads the shipbuilders. Her delivery of Sail Away is exquisite. She is, clearly, one of the backbones of the community and the heart she brings to the role is vital and pounding. She is at her magnificent best when leading the mourners of a funeral in a rousing anthem which is thrilling and life affirming: Show Some Respect.

Shawna M Hamic has great fun with the ball-breaking cricket bat wielding pub landlord who can take on any brawling drunken men who cross her and Mrs Dee’s Rant gets Act Two off with a bang. And there is lovely work from Dawn Cantwell who plays Meg as a young girl; a neatly judged, endearing performance which sets the tone for the whole evening.

In the dual role of the young Gideon who ran away to sea and Meg’s son, Tom, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, in his Broadway debut, is delightful in every way. His turn his complex – he has to show the traces of the man Gideon will be and then show the traces of the man Gideon has created. He does it very well, with great charm and that awkward rebelliousness that is the epicentre of one’s teenage years. The Night The Pugilist Learned How To Dance, Tom’s duet and dance with Gideon, is sheer magic, as are the ballads over which they find peace: Ghost Story and then August Winds.

There is some extraordinary singing from Jimmy Nail who, well, nails the part of Jackie White, the mountain of a man who leads the shipbuilders. He produces a tough, unyielding character, but one it is impossible not to like and the final evocative image of the show works well largely because of his solid turn. His voice is like a foghorn, a thing of wonder and raw power.

Fred Applegate must be looking a likely contender for a Tony Award for his superb performance as Father O’Brien, the community’s spiritual leader, who cares for his flock with a passion and irreverence which, to some eyes, might seem unholy. He drinks, smokes, is not beyond a little embezzlement when a good cause is on the horizon and provides the moral compass for all who encounter him. It’s a rich, funny and intensely moving performance. And Applegate’s voice is in ship-shape condition, a glorious tenor sound of great appeal and strength. His work in the title song, The Last Ship, and his tender finale, So To Speak, is quite haunting.

As usual, Aaron Lazar makes an impressive mark, his performance precisely judged and winning. He plays Arthur, Meg’s current boyfriend and the man who has raised Tom as his own. Hated by the shipbuilders because he left their ranks, and thrown into confusion by Meg’s reaction to Gideon’s return, it would be easy to turn Arthur into an irrelevance, a cold unhappy man. But Lazar doesn’t fall for that; his Arthur is as complex, warm and engaging as Gideon, and it is quite clear why Meg is so torn about the choice she must make. To cap it off, he sings with a golden masculine tone that is just a joy to hear.

Michael Esper makes Gideon a suitably sexy, cocky and totally lost man. Sailing the world has not brought him peace, and Esper makes this clear in subtle ways. It’s a performance of great skill and charm, and Esper is certainly equal to the considerable vocal demands of Sting’s score. All This Time introduces his character with gusto, but I especially liked the way his singing across the course of the show matched the changes in the character’s perspective. It will be a very hard heart that is not moved by his work in the final stages of the second Act; it’s all beautifully judged, true and unsentimental.

There is excellent work from the boisterous ensemble – no one here is out of place or not completely focused on making this new musical sail, with joy and feeling.

Rob Mathes’ musical direction is first rate and the orchestra produces the score with a salty resonance that perfectly fits the book. It’s a cohesive and quite melodious score, packed with energy and opportunity, and Mathes wrings it all out, gently when required and with a fiery spirit on other occasions.

This really is an excellent new musical. Great cast, great score, great characters and a story full of the rawness of life and the hairline between happiness and tragedy. It’s not Billy Elliot at the seaside and nor is it Once with ships. It’s a unique vision, which turns on love, identity and acceptance. A great night in the theatre.

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