Monday, October 27, 2014

REVIEW: The Last Ship

Review of the Saturday, October 11 matinee preview performance at the Neil Simon Theatre in New York City.  Starring  Michael Esper, Rachel Tucker, Jimmy Nail, Aaron Lazar, Sally Ann Triplett, Collin Kelly-Sordelet and Fred Applegate.  Music and Lyrics by Sting.  Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey.  Choreography by Steven Hoggett. Direction by Joe Mantello.  2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Every season, I tend to fall in love with a show despite its flaws, favoring is ambitious, broader themes and emotional wallop - Bonnie and Clyde, Hands on a Hardbody and The Bridges of Madison County come readily to mind.  The Last Ship looks like it will be that show this season.  Like the others, I came into the Neil Simon Theatre with low expectations, not terribly excited after seeing the Sting PBS special that introduced many of the songs associated with the production.  I found that presentation to be only occasionally interesting, but mostly repetitive and rather dull.  What a difference some editing, additions and a full production make!  The resulting show is by turns exciting, powerful, romantic and, ultimately, very moving.

Aaron Lazar and Rachel Tucker
In terms of plot and theme, book writers John Logan and Brian Yorkey have piled quite a bit on this bountiful plate, creating a story that is both intimate and epic, with larger themes making the improbabilities of the plot and archetypes of the characters easier to accept.  The biggest, and for me, the only real flaws with the piece go hand-in-hand. The set up of a town losing its identity and disappearing way of life is complicated by the introduction of a corporate take over of sorts that will give the workers employment, and the men, unwilling to change with the times, do everything in their power to stop this from happening.  This David versus Goliath convention is hit pretty hard, with Aaron Lazar's character taking the brunt of the opposition.  This conflict is glaringly lopsided, with precious little time given to his side of that part of the story.  As the bigger, almost mythic (and more interesting) themes take over, the idea that progress could save the town is all but dropped and Mr. Lazar has even less to do.  Even his part in the central love triangle is given short shrift as he becomes less a part of the main story.  All of this is sad because he is really terrific in every scene he's in, and he does get one of the show's best numbers, "What Say You Meg?".  As frustrating as those things are, the rest of the production is really amazing on every other front.

Like the show itself, the technical elements of the show are simultaneously epic and intimate.  David Zinn's massive set is imposing and full of surprises, as it sprawls far out into the house, as wide as it is tall and deep.  Monolithic metal walls lord over the proceedings, while multiple levels, rising floors and a few set pieces create specific scenes. Christopher Akerlind's cinematic, moody lighting adds to the scope of the larger moments, and his genius use of darkness and beams of light brings the smaller scenes into sharp focus.  Brian Ronan deserves special recognition for his superlative sound design, which captures each heavily accented line and rich lyric.  Steven Hoggett's now-familiar style of choreographic contemporary shapes and Riverdance-ish stomping is particularly apropos for Celtic/Northern England influence of the score, the setting, and the rhythms of a people whose lives are ruled by mechanical repetition. Joe Mantello has again handily crafted together an ambitious show full of huge group numbers and rousing power ballads and duets.  He has a knack for this kind of show; it reminds me of his work in Wicked, another giant/small show with glaring plot flaws all but erased by creative storytelling and larger, more important ideas.

"Show Some Respect"
Mantello has gotten triumphant performances out of his cast - a large, heavily used ensemble, all of whom exude character with every move and look.  When they sing together is difficult not to get up and join them in their anthemic "The Last Ship" and the catchy "We've Got Now't Else," and the celebratory eulogy number, "Show Some Respect."  The women, led by ensemble member Shawna M. Hamic, get their chance to show off their talents in the rousing tavern-style number "Mrs. Dees' Rant" at the top of the second act.

The main cast is, across the board, is even more amazing, despite the varying degrees with which they impact the story.  On the opposite of the character spectrum to Mr. Lazar, is the voice of the workers, played by the rough around the edges Jimmy Nail (he played Magaldi in the Evita film).  You can tell that he has had a long association with the project, as his every move, word and song fairly drips with a certain amount of history - you'd think he'd led this life himself.  His tirelessly supportive wife is played with vigor by Sally Ann Triplett, who really shines as she leads the eulogy number.  Broadway newcomer Collin Kelly-Sordelet (and the next Aaron Tveit in the heartthrob department) is utterly charming and commanding as the heroine's son.  Doubling has the hero of the story as a youth, he has much to do and shows quite a bit of range from comedy to anger, with just enough angst to make us pull for him.

Jimmy Nail and Sally Ann Triplett
Collin Kelly-Sordelet
Fred Applegate, as the very earthy priest of the community provides much of the comic relief in this dark story, navigates the role very well, avoiding the dangerously close to stereotype his role could be.  How nice to see an actor not take the scenery chewing route to gain the audience's adoration.  Making her Broadway debut is former West End Elphaba Rachel Tucker, who plays the deeply conflicted Meg, heroine of the story.  She's as fiery as her ginger hair, and sings with a lovely and powerful voice - her "If you Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor" shows off her singing and acting range superbly.  Leading the company is the always terrific Michael Esper, who proves he is more than up to the task with this somewhat complicated role of near anti-hero.  He's brooding, angry, self-righteous and still vulnerable as we watch him grow from impetuous rebel to grown up role model.  And his chemistry with both Mr. Kelly-Sordelet and Ms. Tucker is palpably evident IN his duets with them, "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance" and "It's Not the Same Moon," respectively.

Michael Esper and Fred Applegate
But the real star of the show here is Sting's gorgeous score, a nuanced patchwork of seaworthy songs, Celtic influenced group numbers and soaring ballads that only occasionally veer towards "pop."  These are songs that stick with you - every song I've mentioned is a highlight.  There are moments in the duets that are just stunning, with tight, moving harmonies that gave me goosebumps. (Kudos, too, to Rich Mathes, who has done some of the nicest musical arranging and orchestrations heard in some time.)  The latest pop-rock star to try his hand at Broadway, Sting is a welcome addition to the trend.  His poetic, literate lyrics alone put him in top tier of such writers.  Good for him, too, for bringing this highly personal story to life, insisting on keeping it serious and challenging - a nice departure from the overtly crowd-pleasing work of others.  Of course, this challenging stance will likely distance some, and that's really a shame.

On paper, the show sounds like it owes a lot to such recent shows as Once, Kinky Boots and Billy Elliot, and, in general, they are similar in location and conflicts. It has the romance of the first, the saving of a way of life theme of the second, and the political-economical implications of the last.  But Ship is far more serious and much less fanciful.  Its entertainment comes from its power and scope, only briefly dipping its toe in the pond of sentimentality.  (The fact is, the show, on a smaller scale, is more Les Miserables than anything, save the melodrama.)  I'm glad I was so pleasantly surprised.  Let that be a lesson to me for expecting the worst.  And my advice to you: give The Last Ship a chance, unfettered by preconceived notions. The company and Sting's stirring score make this musical worth a visit.

25 pts
Book (10)
Score: Music (5)
Score: Lyrics (5)
Orchestrations (5)
25 pts
Staging (15)
Choreography (10)
20 pts
Leading Roles (7)
Supporting Roles (7)
Ensemble (6)
20 pts
Scenery (5)
Costumes (5)
Lighting (5)
Sound (5)
10 pts
Unity of Concept (5)
Entertainment Value (5)

(Photos by Joan Marcus)


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