Sting wasn't born Sting, you know. Years before he got famous as lead singer of the Police, he was Gordon Sumner of Wallsend, a spot in the northeast of England known for shipyards that boosters today call "historic" and "proud" because little in the way of shipbuilding actually goes in them anymore. Born in 1951, Sting grew up during the slow Detroitification of the Wallsend yards; now, at 62, he's apparently in a retrospective mood—ergo his farfetched yet entertaining new musical, The Last Ship, set in the Wallsend of his youth.
To his credit, Sting hasn't opted for a Great Man exercise in autohagiography. Unlike, say, Berry Gordy's Motown: The Musical, The Last Ship isn't a creation myth. But then again, it isn't what you'd call a gritty look at postindustrial dislocation either. Even the inevitable comparisons to Billy Elliot are off: overblown as it was when it came through Chicago in 2010, Elton John's stage musical was constrained by its source material (the 2000 movie starring a 14-year-old Jamie Bell) to stick close to the politics and culture and hard knocks of English coal miners carrying on a bitter strike during the mid-1980s. Created out of whole cloth, The Last Ship has no such constraints and doesn't impose many on itself. Though it unfolds among working people facing the loss of their collective livelihood, the show leaps off—weirdly, and without really acknowledging it—into romantic fantasy.
A pair of seasoned professionals, John Logan and Brian Yorkey, wrote the book. Still, inasmuch as Logan is most famous for giving us the epic silliness that is Gladiator and Yorkey won his Pulitzer for Next to Normal, which turns on a delusional suburban mom and her nonexistent son, the seasoning may be wrong for the dish. In any event, they and Sting have come up with a piece of work that alternates between the cliched and the ludicrous.
It revolves around Gideon Fletcher, whom we first meet when he's 15 and itching to get free of Wallsend "before it's too late." He has the standard pitched battle with his dad (shipyard lifer, violent streak) about throwing over the family trade. Then he has the standard parting with his special girl, Meg (She: "I can't go." He: "I can't stay."), during which she doesn't share the standard information that she's pregnant. When Gideon returns to Wallsend 15 years later to settle his now-deceased father's affairs, he makes the standard profession of devotion to Meg. She, meanwhile, has made the standard accommodations to reality, waiting tables while enjoying a stable relationship with a salt-of-the-earth type named Arthur, who spends all his time bettering himself and treating Meg's boy, Tom, as if he were his own flesh and blood.
Logan and Yorkey introduce some texture to offset the triteness. Gideon walks out on his dad even after the old man has a disabling accident, thereby turning a rejection into a betrayal; Arthur goes to work for a company that wants to "repurpose" the yards, thereby turning an ambition into a betrayal. Although they up the ante some, neither of these wrinkles yields significant follow-through.
The ludicrous part kicks in when the workers decide to take matters into their own hands and—I feel silly even writing it—build a ship of their own.
Now why would they do a thing like that, you ask? As presented in the show, it seems to be a combination beau geste, publicity stunt, and therapeutic pastime. Not to mention a way for Gideon to have a crisis or two before seeking his avenue (or sea lane) to redemption. Once the tub is built, they plan on taking a world tour in it—which, in the hazy proletarian thinking of the Wallsend folks, is either an act of solidarity with their brother workers around the globe or a fuck-you to them for taking all the good jobs.
None of this would need to make sense if the authors and director Joe Mantello had framed The Last Ship as a fable—a kind of collective fever dream brought on by the stress of changing times. But they didn't. Instead, Logan and Yorkey have supplied pseudo-reasonable explanations for the little loose ends, like what the workers are using for money, why the yard owners don't throw them out, and how come the construction time goes by so fast. Those explanations are as implausible as the premise, however, so I guess you've just gotta believe.
And oddly enough, you might. With the exception of a couple songs whose Latin rhythms take us out of the cultural environment of the action, Sting's score is forceful and tender by turns, very much in his signature style without getting slavish about it, and consistently subtler than the surrounding narrative. (A musical Marxist diatribe offers a brief, comic, and, yes, slightly nostalgic high point.)
With particularly creative help from from lighting designer Christopher Akerlind and choreographer Steven Hoggett, Mantello's staging manages to be fluid while also evoking the iron-and-rivets, actetylene-torch-lit world of the yards. Cunningly, he evokes Sting, too, through the remarkably Sting-like vocal stylings of his Gideon, Michael Esper.
The rest of the cast are strong, solid, and craftsmanlike in their performances, as befits a union-sanctioned production about union laborers. English actor Jimmy Nail looks like a well-used hammer as one of the workers, singing with a fierceness that occasionally, disarmingly transcends key. Fred Applegate is another one with a lived-in look and manner, as the local parish priest—a good man to have around when a tale, like that of The Last Ship, is running on faith alone.