I count the boats returning from the sea,” laments Meg, a mother scanning the horizon for signs that Gideon Fletcher, the sweetheart of her youth, will return to her from faraway waters. This lass (played by Rachel Tucker) has endured a long wait. Her man sailed away 15 years ago, after revolting against a father hardened from a lifetime of labor in Wallsend’s bleak shipyards. But when this long-lost mariner (Michael Esper) suddenly returns, ready for resolution, is it too late to resurrect dreams long deferred?
This watery romance lies at the sentimental heart of The Last Ship, a new musical christened and launched this week on Broadway. Faced with a versatile score and lyrics by Sting and a sometimes-unclear book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, it’s mostly better to savor the music and visuals and not think too hard about the hazy narrative. The story, set in modern-day northeast England, can be meandering and repetitive, with some key details omitted. For instance, the good shipbuilders of this ailing town decide to occupy the industrial yards despite their impending economic demise. But their aim isn’t clear: Do they mean to honor beloved Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), who has a Noah-like vision and hopes to live to see one final boat built before he dies? Is it proud workmen’s defiance of market forces? Or are the townspeople undertaking an ennobling deed, bringing meaning back into the lives of those left unemployed in hard times?
The Last Ship doesn’t dwell on this not-insignificant detail, and its platitude-laden script likewise glosses over the reasons for Gideon’s sudden return and Meg’s devotion. But although the characters are mainly cutouts, the show sails along, buoyed by grand visuals and a strong score — one of the most expressive I’ve heard on Broadway recently. You can almost hear Sting’s silky voice emanate from the soulful, jazzy ballads (nicely rendered, especially by Esper and Tucker). Bouncy, up-tempo jigs prompt plenty of stomping in chorus scenes at the local pub. Sparks even fly from blowtorches as one number — an ode to the spirit of work — swells to a climax. Under the direction of Joe Mantello, the production’s scale (vast) and atmosphere (gritty) are impressive, evoking a windswept region longing for redemption.
The builders’ display of civic determination inspires and changes Gideon, prompting him to reconsider the importance of kith and kin. Never mind the dreary location with all the scaffolding and chain-link fences: This is a musical, and the young hero realizes he must follow his heart. In the most memorable and affecting tune (“The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance”), Gideon offers a tender ballad of emotional wisdom to his teenage son Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). The song is pure Sting, poetic and brooding, and it’s one of the only places where the show slows down long enough for characters to establish relationships — in this case a delicate bond forming between father and son.
“What can I do but run and run and run,” the seafarer wonders in a subsequent song, “afraid to love, afraid to fail…
A mast without a sail.” The Last Ship too struggles to find its way at times, but ultimately this big Broadway vessel catches the wind from its billowing score.