If you've attended any of the packed previews of The Last Ship at the Neil Simon Theater, you may have noticed its originator and composer Sting lurking about. At your surprise to see him, he exclaims, "It's my baby!" Indeed, this musical, with book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, under Joe Mantello's direction and with choreography by Steven Hoggett, is an absolute must-see about a young man who leaves home and family to travel the world, only to return after fifteen years to a place altered by modernity, what the British metaphysical poets called mutability. This change is most dramatically felt by a community losing its traditions of shipbuilding, and the work that sustained them literally and spiritually for generations.
The young man, Gideon (younger, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, older Michael Esper), seems in arrested development, a child-man wanting everything as it was. But it is "a different moon," and he grows up fast. The location is Northern England whence Sting hails, from Newcastle, so close to Hadrian's Wall, a border to Scotland, a locale that explains the accents, dialect, and syntax, as in one of my favorite songs, "What say you, Meg?" (Meg is Rachel Tucker) which comes when Gideon, still in love with the girl he left behind, wants her to marry him, even though she is now with Arthur (a worthy opponent in Aaron Lazar).
At its core, The Last Ship poses a religious quest for redemption: Father Jim (Fred Applegate) hears Gideon's confession of sins of the flesh, drink, and foul talk. But hey, this father has a few foibles of his own. His heart is so big, he inspires Gideon and the entire community, characters we come to know and love in the pub, and at the ship yard where industry is closing, turning from the actual building of ships, the mainstay of these hearty, lively folk, to jobs akin to pencil pushing. The company, led by Jimmy Nail as Jackie White and Sally Ann Triplett as his wife Peggy, won't have it, and they rally to erect just one more ship, the last one, which, as in the epics of old, will carry a body out to sea.
A note here about David Zinn's scene design, so imaginative, breathtaking and mythic: the ship in all its immense grandeur is an abstract backdrop of sea-worthy glory, a mix of rust and blue-greens. Like all the talent involved in this production, the art is first rate, offering an unforgettable visual denouement.
Sting was an English teacher before he became STING. These epic journeys, quests for identity, paternity, and manhood, must come spilling out of his head. Father Jim is such a rich transformative figure that Fred Applegate who has performed the role from the beginning of Sting's birthing this project, said he's quit jobs every time this ship was set to sail. The actor said, if this vessel was heading to Broadway, "I wanted to be the one to play the good Father."
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.