After seeing The Last Ship, my friend and I retired to the nearest watering hole and laughed so hard we cried. Pretty certain our reaction was not the desired one on the part of this production team. Let it be known, however, that we were not laughing at the glorious music that Sting has created for this production, nor some of the very fine performances. We were laughing at the set that fails to ever clearly show us the Last Ship, the choreography with which these performers are saddled (indeed it would have been better suited to a team of Clydesdales). But most of all we were laughing at the cockamamie story that it took two people – John Logan and Brian Yorkey – to create.
Stop me if I go too fast.
A long time ago a boy and girl fall in love in a shipping town, Wallsend. No specific date is given.
Boy-o Gideon Fletcher (Kelly-Sordelet) has a falling out with his father (Jamie Jackson) who is disabled because of an accident in the shipyards. Pop wants Gideon to start in at the shipyard or else there will be no money coming in. Gideon rebels, and, instead of going to the place where they make the ships, he gets on one, promising to return for his true love Meg (Dawn Cantwell). No mention of how the father will survive….
Fast forward 15 years (pay attention to that number). Gideon the elder (Michael Esper) returns for his father’s funeral, a few days too late. He is late because he had to hop two or three freighters to get back home.
Guess there were no flights from any of the ports he visited.
Anyhoo, now that Gideon is back, he can be guided by the local priest Father O’Brien (the excellent Fred Applegate) to make amends with his father as well as the rest of the community. Yeah, right. Being on dry land, however, gives Gideon one purpose only – find Meg.
Meg the elder works at the local pub where – wait for it – her 15 year old son, Tom (Kelly-Sordele) helps out. The shipyard has been closed for a long time, so all the men gather at the pub to drown their sorrows. I guess being on the dole gives people a thirst as well as the means to satisfy it. Meg’s beau Arthur (Aaron Lazar) is working for the folks who own the shipyard property, and that makes him a skank to everyone but Meg and Tom. He offers the men jobs as salvage workers, which to them means garbage pickers. No deal.
Into this ruckus waltzes Gideon. Meg’s applecart is upset big time. Gideon’s first words to her are (no kidding) Meg…We’ve got things to say. ….I told you I’d be back for you. Meg tosses him out on his ear, along with all the other men-folk.
And this, my dear chums is where the ship springs a major leak and heads directly for the reef.
For the entire rest of the show Gideon pursues Meg. He is earnest, but other than that displays no redeeming features. He is frustrated but not sorry with a capital “S”. He never escapes being self-referential. When he learns Tom is his son (and he learns this from Tom himself within a nanno second of their meeting….) he tells Meg, If I had known I would have come back. Translation: “Keeping my word to you meant bupkus, but I would have walked on hot coals for a son.” Good thing the writers didn’t make Meg a gun owner. Gideon is no more than a one-dimensional character in spite of Mr. Esper’s excellent work. Kind of a problem when the lead is poorly written. And not for nothin’ but was he directed to sing just like Sting? It is eerie – makes you feel like you are at a concert.
Onward. About two-thirds into the first act our adorable priest gets an idea that comes from n-o-w-h-e-r-e. Let’s pull the men together and build a last ship. It will be good for morale. Where the ship will go when it is launched is a little vague. Of course this idea catches on like wildfire – because the whole town is unemployed and has nothing else to do – especially when Gideon, who has heretofore been pretty much unwelcomed home, leaps into the fray to lead the men.
There follows much to-ing and fro-ing. The men take over this shipyard. Gideon and Tom bond. Arthur tells Meg she must choose between the two men. She makes the right choice. The priest kicks the bucket and – get this – his body is kept on ice at the pub until the ship is ready to set sail and give him a burial at sea.
No freezers in town I guess.
The grand day arrives and – here comes the best part – all the men who built the ship hop on board as crew. Gideon as the only true seaman among them (a third class merchant sailor to be precise) will captain the ship. As I mentioned before we never actually SEE a ship. What we see are three masts that look like skinny telephone poles with foot rests upstage, and at the moment of launch the front of the stage lifts to reveal a mechanical mess that looks like a giant version of what a dentist might see halfway through a root canal/crown procedure. This is supposed to be the stern of the ship. I guess. Upstage an enormous projection of a roiling sea is revealed (although the ship has not yet left port). Tom jumps on board, with Meg’s blessing, and off they all go.
So here is how it shakes out: 20 or so English shipbuilders sign up as the crew for a ship they built. (This would be a little like letting the hard hats into an operating room, yes?) Not one of these men has ever sailed before, but they are all unemployed so what the heck, why not? Never mind that everyone’s’ life is at stake, the ocean being what it is and all. There is no mention, nor any sign of food, supplies, electricity, fuel – OR the money to procure same. Ditto a destination. No mention of that detail either. The captain is a seaman who has never captained anything. His 15-year-old son, who he has known for a few weeks, is on board. So is a dead priest who is ripening as we speak. The priest’s body has not been wrapped for burial at sea and will presumably be chucked into the ocean, casket included. The mother of the 15 year old is left only with her beau and the captain’s promise to be back in the spring. Mind you, the last time this captain promised to do anything it took him 15 years to get around to it.
Beam me up Scottie.
PS I have no idea where Mr. Mantello was during all of this. There was little sense of a directorial signature. Sting would have been brilliantly served if this had been staged as a concert. But once the decision to stage it was made, how these writers were selected out of the entire pool of talent that we have on this planet is a marvel. The book they created is bordering on ludicrous. How it became the soggy flotsam draped over this remarkable music is a mystery and a shame.
It was, however, fodder for some pretty spectacular laughs.
And, of course, there was a standing ovation.
The Last Ship – Music and lyrics by Sting; book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey; directed by Joe Mantello
WITH: Michael Esper (Gideon Fletcher), Rachel Tucker (Meg Dawson), Jimmy Nail (Jackie White), Aaron Lazar (Arthur Milburn), Sally Ann Triplett (Peggy White), Collin Kelly-Sordelet (young Gideon/Tom Dawson), Dawn Cantwell (young Meg), Jamie Jackson (Joe Fletcher) and Fred Applegate (Father O’Brien).
Choreography by Steven Hoggett; music direction, orchestrations and arrangements by Rob Mathes; sets and costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Christopher Akerlind; sound design by Brian Ronan; music coordinator, Dean Sharenow; associate music director, Dan Lipton; production supervisor, Brian Lynch; production stage manager, J. Philip Bassett; company manager, Nick Lugo; general manager, Baseline Theatrical/Andy Jones. Presented by Jeffrey Seller, Kathryn Schenker, Kevin McCollum, Sander Jacobs, James L. Nederlander, Roy Furman, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. At the Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52nd Street, Manhattan, 877-250-2929, thelastship.com. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.