Jan. 27, 2020 | By Bruce R. Feldman
“The Last Ship,” Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, Jan. 14-Feb. 16, 2020
In Brief: Heartfelt, often stirring, and tuneful, this handsomely mounted musical from pop star Sting – on stage, as well, in a pivotal role – is a much more satisfying and pleasurable entertainment than might have been expected.
There are rock musicals, and then there are musicals written by pop composers. Of the latter, some of the most commercially successful have been surprisingly conventional in format and style.
Sting and the cast of "The Last Ship" (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Think Elton John’s Billy Elliot or Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots as prime examples of big-budget, schmaltzy pageants designed to appeal to the tourists, families, and suburban theatergoers whose preference for light fare keeps Broadway humming along year after year.
Far from the raw energy that underpins so much of rock music, these musicals are polished productions, feature a large chorus of trained voices, and invariably conclude on a positive note. Radical? Hardly.
There have been edgier, more nuanced rock musicals on Broadway, to be sure.
With twin plot lines, The Last Ship falls somewhere between the two camps. The dominant story line concerns the workers at a failing Newcastle shipyard. Their jobs are in jeopardy from cheap overseas competition, and an unsympathetic Thatcher government that won’t protect them. Their future is uncertain.
The second plot line involves a restless young man, Gideon (Oliver Savile) who sets out to sea to escape a bleak future, leaving behind his pregnant girlfriend Meg (Frances McNamee). He returns 17 years later to try to repair the damage he’s inflicted. (In this the story strongly recalls Marcel Pagnol’s Fanny-Marius-César films of the 1930s, which were later turned into the 1954 Broadway musical Fanny.)
Savile and McNamee are both first-rate, offering generous performances that rise above the story’s somewhat predictable developments. They sing Sting’s appealing score beautifully.
Indeed, under Richard John’s musical direction, the entire production features superlative choral work and outstanding musicianship from a small band that sounds much bigger than it is. The sound by Sebastian Frost is clear, direct, and not over amplified.
Sting has said that he wanted to pay homage to the men and women of the hardscrabble commnity he grew up in
No longer a kid, Sting still displays a fine, strong voice that serves the material well. He gives an authoratative supporting performance as the shipyard foreman trying to negotiate the bitter conflict between the owners and union workers.
Lorne Campbell wrote the book, revised from the original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. He also directed. Both the libretto and direction are more serviceable than inspired. But they get the job done.
In addition to a host of solid performances, the theatrical thrills come from the terrific lighting by Matt Daw and striking sets credited to 59 Productions. Kudos also go to whichever one of them created the atmospheric, visually stunning projections that transform the unit set into a variety of locales.
The Last Ship isn’t as slick or shiny as similarly themed British musicals such as Billy Elliot or The Full Monty. Depending on what kind of theatergoer you are, this might or might not be a good thing.
"The Last Ship," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213-628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org