The Last FrankenShip

It is almost too fitting that the biggest problem with The Last Ship, which official opened last night at the Neil Simon Theatre, is that the book Frankensteins two stories together. I mean, what with Halloween only a few days away. Haha, topical.

But maybe that shouldn’t be my opening...because The Last Ship deserves its run on Broadway, despite my hesitation to fully embrace it. One look at the unconventionality, the (Franken)story, the music and the direction/performances and all I can see is a labor of love.

That’s a pleasant surprise given most mainstream artist-turned-composer musicals on Broadway as of late tend to gear towards the…underwhelming. U2 and Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. Trey Anastasio and Hands on a Hardbody. Cyndi Lauper and Kinky Boots. My sentiments exactly. The Last Ship is more of a vanity project for Sting as the basis of the show is inspired by the town he grew up in and a return visit he made some years ago. Well…if you wanted the essence of Sting’s music adapted to a more theatrical setting, you certainly get what you paid for. Even Michael Esper, bless his (lovely) heart, wailed his pipes out and EMOTED ALL THE FEELS enough to evoke Sting’s voice.

But yeah, that story. Or stories. One part love-triangle (ugh) as Esper’s Gideon - whom after a falling out with his father, leaves his hometown for 15 years, only to return for his funeral - looks to rekindle the relationship with the girl he left behind (whom has long moved on with a son and long-term boyfriend). The other part is a…rebel-rousing, last hoo-rah as the recently job-less ship-building community rally together to build one final ship. Either story isn’t particularly innovative on concept, but had Brian Yorkey and John Logan provided something adequate, I would have been more than pleased.

Of course - OF COURSE - that’s not what happened. I couldn’t work up any fucks to give about the ship-building community, as “underdog-ey” as the story frames them. I’m sure they are lovely people and no one likes it when global capitalism renders a small-watt community town useless, but I felt ennui every time they started back up with the “Do you Hear the People Sing?” show’s title number and its how ever many reprises. And, aside from the leading female, all of the women are nothing more then the occasional wisdom-spewing sage for the men. For a show that was supposed to be set in a recent year, there was something alarmingly retrograde about that.

Was the love-triangle portion of the story any better? Ummmm…like Les Ship, it had moments that would succumb to a barrage of boring. Not too subtle for its own good or anything fancy like that…just straight-up boring. Overall, as I look over the song list mere days after seeing the show, I don’t remember the lyrics or staging for most of it. The orchestrations are very-Sting and provocative. While taking the show in, no strong struck me as jarring or awful. But there was only a few real stand-outs and even then, my memory is a little patchy.

But the love-triangle aspect of The Last Ship had the benefit of...you know, characters that had names and details beyond “blue-collar worker who drinks at the local pub.” And a cast performing their asses off.

Obviously, giving Michael Esper a crack at a lead role was going to delight me. Even as someone who has followed his career quite-closely for the last four-ish years, he managed to surprise me yet again. The “leading man divo-ing out in the spotlight at center stage” was never what I would associate with him, and yet there he was…nailing exactly that. Who knew he had that voice and power in him? When Gideon is singing and charming the pants off the audience (in particular, a second act number about dancing and charming women!) or interacted with his love interest Meg (nearly every scene of theirs had tangible chemistry), that is Esper at his peak. When given the time to ANGST the FUCK out over his daddy issues, I was…decidedly less in love with him. A little too much, no?

I’ll say this…I get why Gideon pursues Meg so heavily. Because Meg is played by Rachel Tucker and she is an undeniable star. You probably don’t know her - other then some UK credits and a deep-finish on the UK series I’d Do Anything - but you will now. As her Meg is torn between two suitors and tending to her teenage son, Tucker’s performance is perfectly calibrated and illicits a strong emotional response. Her real stunning moment though is early-on in the first act. While working at her job in a bar, she gets a full-on “FUCK MEN” number. And it was glorious. She slides and tosses drinks in every direction, uses the bar, tables and patron’s bodies as steps, slides and/or props, sasses up the joint and SLAYSSSSSSS. Attaqueen. LUV. HUH.

But what does it say about the show that Rachel’s number was the best moment - mostly due to Rachel herself - and it was hardly the most necessary to the story? Yeah. Steven Hoggett’s choreography fits the mood and the full-scale numbers. But it was also repetitive with all the stomping and the stomping. Plus, stomping. Oh, did I mention…there was stomping. That poor stage.

Joe Mantello’s direction is passable when he pares down on the ostentatious fodder, allowing certain moments to feel authentic and a natural beauty to appear. His vision for the ship-building and ship-yard scenes was HUGE missteps though. No matter how much the stage rose on an incline or decline - like a treadmill at a gym - or props on stage moved around, it all felt superfluous to me. Pretentious even considering there is no actual ship or much of anything in terms of what to look at.

“Noble failure” is a buzz phrase circulating through my brain, but that’s not entirely fair. I have my qualms and it is more then apparent then I love the idea of The Last Ship more then The Last Ship itself. But no, definitely not a failure. In fact, it is more of the musical I seek out on the Broadway roticon and really want to triumph. It just didn’t have many successes and with that creative, it really could have been something spectacular. I just love a musical that takes the route less traveled and doesn’t settle for providing some empty-headed entertainment. Say what you will about The Last Ship, but it’s a noble-intent with mixed results, which I will always choose over a one-note kind-of success.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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