Sting’s “The Last Ship,” a musical that sprung from the rock star’s 2013 album by the same title, opened to a packed house at Pioneer Theatre over the weekend. The troupe did its utmost to breathe new life into the 2014 Broadway musical that, while garnering mixed if respectable reviews in New York as well as a Tony nomination, couldn’t garner the one thing it needed most: ticket sales.
The big question — could Pioneer Theatre’s subtle refashioning coupled with a different brand of audience deliver wind to this musical’s sails?
Fans of the rock star, born Gordon Sumner and who now goes by Sting, likely gathered to hear the icon’s artistic voice in his score for the musical but perhaps were equally curious to see whether a gloomy portrait of his industrial hometown and its rough-hewn shipbuilders could hold their interest for over two hours.
Thankfully, the score was superbly crafted and did not disappoint. What did disappoint, though, was the story, written by heavyweights John Logan and Brian Yorkey. It simply lacked the legs needed to captivate an audience for two hours, making certain scenes feel redundant and overdrawn.
The action centers on an economically depressed English town and its colorful list of working-class characters. When the chapter threatens to close on the livelihood of the shipyard workers, a stubborn but lovable collection of castoffs decide to occupy the yard in an attempt to build one last ship. Amidst the turmoil, prodigal son Gideon Fletcher returns to face the town that shaped him and to seek out Meg, the love he left behind.
The musical smartly draws the audience in from the outset with recognizable Sting hits such as “Island of Souls” and “All This Time,” as well as a new favorite, the disarming and lovely “August Wind.” Equally haunting, rich melodies and poetic prose melded into a diverse array of sound throughout the evening, from sea chanteys and celtic nods to rustic and acoustic pieces.
Truth be told, the score alone is worth going to see this musical. Sting’s 20-plus songs win the day. The very likable and remarkably talented Bryant Martin, who stars as Gideon Fletcher, runs a close second.
Martin’s swagger and boyish charm are swoon-worthy, as is his musical talent. His love interest Meg Dawson, played by British-born Ruthie Stephens, is every bit his equal.
Other standouts included John Jellison as Father James O’Brien, the colorfully profane and highly likable priest who hatches the mad plan for a final ship’s construction, and Dan Sharkey as Jackie White, the tough-as-nails foreman with a heart of gold.
Yet the story, while asking soul-searching questions from its audience, does, at times, seem thin. Musicals don’t need razzmatazz to thrive. Yet, the gloomy pall cast by “The Last Ship” seems never to lift.
Thought-provoking themes revolving around fathers and sons, dignity in work, finding meaning in one’s roots and the changing nature of love eked their way into a storyline that seemed to rely on unneeded reprises to stretch out the clock and an ending that, while touching, was also puzzling.
There are also tender moments that charm and delight such as “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance,” a scene in which Gideon and the teenaged son he’s just met wind up spending the evening hours in a prison cell together. The fierce-fighting seaman teaches his son how to not fight but dance with a woman.
"You swing to the left and swing to the right, keep your eyes on your partner, more and less like a fight,” he says to his son in all seriousness.
A few scenes needed polishing. The complexity of the music kept the singers on their toes in order to keep up. The voices were at times muffled by the orchestra or, though subtle, racing to catch up. Things didn’t feel quite as effortless as they should, although these small glitches tend to sort themselves out soon after opening night. With such a talented cast, there are no doubts these small missteps will be all but forgotten by the next show. If only the storyline could be as easily tidied up.
Avid Sting fans may not mind the plodding story if they’re content getting lost in the music, but regular theatergoers may find this musical slightly dreary and slow-moving.
Content advisory: The show contains some strong language. Several scenes are set in a pub with drinking.