Sting’s musical The Last Ship is at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles through February 17.
There is no shortage of puns to describe the turbulent history of The Last Ship. Sting drafted the concept in 2011. The Broadway run launched in 2014 and lasted only four months. Oscar nominee John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall) wrote the original book. After The Last Ship tanked on Broadway, the production hired Lorne Campbell to rewrite the book. The LA Times reports, “Campbell recalls how surreal it was to meet Sting for the first time at his Tuscan villa. The singer took out his guitar and played the score from top to bottom”.
And, in a way, that seems the best way to consume The Last Ship: quietly, in a bard’s circle, with folk musicians taking you on the ebb and flow of the story’s tide.
The Last Ship is a political story. In 1980s England, the town of Wallsend learns their shipyard has been privatized and none of them have jobs anymore. Inside the shipyard stands Utopia, the last ship they ever built. The new owners want to scrap the boat. The people of Wallsend have different plans.
Sting wrote The Last Ship in memory of the town where he grew up. In lieu of a director’s statement, the theater program features a timeline of the history of shipbuilding and protest. Next to that, readers have a “geordie glossary”, bringing the audience hip to the lingo of Tyneside. Critics note that The Last Ship brings a distinctly regional story to the stage, and it may fail to connect with American audiences because Americans don’t understand the politics of conservative Britain. Sting rebuffs this excuse, arguing that The Last Ship brings a universal story of human resistance. Early reviews also criticized the original book for featuring too many males; The Last Ship 2.0 takes that note, and puts females literally at the front of the picket lines.
I got lost in the accents, tired of the will- they- won’t- they romance between the show’s romantic leads, and just plain tired- the show lasts almost three hours. But every time voices united for a soul- moving chorus, I damn near cried.
I’m not even sure why The Last Ship even has a book. Sting’s Tony- nominated music is damn near perfect.
There’s something to be said about seeing the writer on the stage. Sting far from stars in The Last Ship. He plays the shipyard foreman, and dies halfway through the second act. But every sung syllable sounds like Sting. The score bears unmistakable hallmarks of one of world music’s most eclectic composers. It’s all here: Gaelic folk music, Latin rhythms, hurdy gurdies, jigs, waltzes, syncopated syllables, iambic pentameter, synchronicity. Most of the cast comes from Great Britain or Ireland. The show uses previously recorded “When We Dance” and “All This Time”, from Sting’s 1991 album “The Soul Cages”, in the second act. The familiarity serves as a welcome pick- me- up, but sting’s sparing use of repertoire suggests that he has bigger things on his mind than his own Hero’s Journey.
And that’s what makes The Last Ship stand so tall. Broadway slurps up a celebrity musical. Donna Summer (Summer), Carole King (Beautiful) and Tina Turner (Tina) all got the Broadway treatment. In The Last Ship, Sting tells his story- and the stories of forgotten people in a forgotten corner of the world. The Last Ship doesn’t razzle- dazzle its audience with showstopping numbers or punchy optimism. It’s a dark, gritty, political, often uncomfortable portrait of people bound by their lot in life.
The show did well in Britain, Ireland and Toronto. I predict much of its American future hinges on its run in Los Angeles. Our theater was not even two- thirds full; people scooted into higher- priced seats during intermission. The Last Ship has flaws, but it does what theater should: it gets us out of our comfort zones and into someone else’s boots. If you have the time, get in the Ahmanson for a trip aboard The Last Ship.