A bit old-fashioned with moderately stale tropes, this heartfelt musical at the Ahmanson Theatre shows how the sudden closing of an English shipyard affects the common man.
By John Lavitt
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) January 24, 2020
Old ghosts haunt the post-Broadway life of the touring production of “The Last Ship” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The latest version of this musical offers a new book by the director, Lorne Campbell. Despite the script’s retooling and the presence of a multiple Grammy Award-winning superstar, a show that failed to generate much interest from New York audiences in 2015 and quickly sank into oblivion remains not quite seaworthy. Internationally renowned for his solo career and as principal songwriter, lead singer, and bassist for The Police, Sting wrote the songs for the musical and based the story on his childhood memories.
The musical is set in the North East England town of Wallsend, where Sting was born. The story patches together a well-worn romantic tale of two young lovers, Gideon (Oliver Savile) and Meg (Frances McNamee), with a historical account of unions under siege during the ultra-conservative reign of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Separated as teenagers, when Gideon decides to leave the dead-end town, the focus of the story is his return seventeen years later to discover that Meg was pregnant when he left. She waited only so long for him to return, then forged a life on her own. His return also happens to coincide with the surprise shutting down of the shipyard.
Despite many excellent performances, the dual stories feel like they have descended from made-for-television BBC dramas from decades past. The plot points of iconic plays and movies are regurgitated on the docks. Imagine if an impoverished British version of Marlon Brando’s On The Waterfront was married in a shotgun wedding to West Side Story. As the plot shifts back and forth from a fractured love story to an impending labor strike, it feels disjointed.
As Jackie White, the shipyard foreman in failing health, Sting attempts to pull off a challenging role that ultimately plays as one-dimensional. Almost every line and every song by the musician is performed with the same intonation. Even with the limitations of the book, the lack of variance on-stage reduces the character to a cardboard cutout. Although he suffers from a disease plaguing his lungs that was caused by his years of building ships, there is still a lack of emotional resonance.
Ultimately, Sting proudly walks the stage like a superstar in a slum. It is possible that due to his level of fame, that’s just who he is. Although he wants to connect with the other actors, the apparent importance of his presence is never shed to reveal the fragile humanity of a real human being. Even though the execution is not entirely successful, as a singer first and an actor second, Sting’s intention is a valiant effort.
Indeed, there is no question that Sting’s efforts are genuine and come from the heart. Indeed, he cares for the common man, and he wants to tell a tale that connects the audience to injustice and capitalist oppression. Given the traditional journey taken in the musical, many theatergoers will enjoy the scale and attempted emotional grandeur of “The Last Ship.” Focused on the closing of the English shipyard and the plight of the proletarian workers, the thematic elements are clear and undeniable.
In addition to the bold themes, the talented cast does everything they can to make the show seaworthy. As Meg, Frances McNamee has a powerful voice that impresses in many of her solo numbers. An energetic dancer, her spirited moves illuminate the stage. Feeling abandoned by Gideon while valuing her independence, she offers the best opportunities for the audience to connect with the emotions of the star-crossed lovers.
As Ellen Dawson, Meg and Gideon’s teenage daughter, Sophie Reid is a contemporary breath of fresh air that temporarily alleviates the ineffective elements of the production. She expresses well both the bewilderment of her father’s return after a seventeen-year absence and her simmering anger at her mother for hiding the truth of his identity. However, she also feels like part of a different production from the rest of the cast. Perhaps the rest of the storyline should be updated to match her presence.
It makes perfect sense why the Ahmanson Theatre would choose “The Last Ship” as part of their 2020 repertory. When Sting performs, he regularly sells out The Hollywood Bowl and The Wiltern Theatre. It’s true – it is rare to have a superstar of his caliber in a theatrical production. If you want to see the singer perform in a new context, this may be the show for you. However, his presence alone does not make this vessel quite as seaworthy as a discerning audience might like.