At first blush, the shipbuilding industry does not seem the most obvious topic for a musical. The Last Ship, an original musical with music and lyrics by Sting and a new book by Lorne Campbell, opened this week at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles with some of the problems you might expect given the show’s tumultuous journey the last few years. But impressive design elements, a talented cast, and a surprising amount of heart save the production from running aground.
The Last Ship, which is based on Sting’s own childhood experiences growing up in the shipbuilding community of Wallsend in the United Kingdom, made its world premiere in 2014. Despite Sting joining the cast in an eleventh-hour effort to stay open, a Broadway run lasted barely 100 performances. In 2017, the original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey was majorly reworked, and the current version premiered in the United Kingdom before eventually making its way to the United States for this tour. Parts of the plot were streamlined to make way for stronger romantic and sociopolitical storylines, and a priest character was cut, along with various religious references. Directed by Campbell, Sting has rejoined the cast in a role that does not require much heavy lifting but provides the primary draw to ticket-buyers.
The story follows Gideon (Oliver Savile), a young man who returns home to Wallsend after seventeen years at sea only to find the shipbuilding community he grew up in in crisis due to changing economic tides. He must also attempt to reconcile with Meg (Frances McNamee), the long-lost teenage love he abandoned so many years ago. Led by their foreman, Jackie White (Sting), the workers of the shipyard face retaliation as they disobey the wishes of both management and the law to build—you guessed it—one last ship before their lives change forever.
Narratively, the show is sloppy, and the growing pains it suffered en route to Los Angeles show. At two hours and 45 minutes, it is far too long, with many redundancies that could easily be cut. Gideon and Meg have roughly the same song and conversation about three times, yet none of the colorful side characters get enough time in the spotlight to feel like well-rounded human beings. When the climax is finally reached, it overstays its welcome, and you begin to long for the moment the ship finally touches water because maybe that means it will be time to go to bed soon.
That being said, this production has numerous saving graces, and while they do not entirely prevent it from being a slog, they at least majorly distract from it. Sting is a gifted songwriter with highly theatrical sensibilities, and his score is quite lovely. While most is original material written for this show, a few songs from his previous albums are incorporated, including “All This Time” and “When We Dance.” And the design (59 Productions) is quite spectacular. The projections are first-rate, transforming a simple set into something special with added dimension and convincing visions of clouds, waves, and atmosphere. The lighting design (Matt Daw) adds to the moody vibe, and there are several unique and striking moments in the staging, such as the way a flashback of young Gideon (Joseph Peacock) is staged and some brief but beautiful dance interludes.
At the end of the day, all of the heart in the story, which is fairly generic on paper, comes from the female characters. There’s Peggy (Jackie Morrison), a steadfast nurse who holds the community together when her husband, the foreman, cannot. Meg is so fierce for ninety percent of the musical that the romantic ending forced upon her feels frustrating. And then there is her daughter, Ellen (Sophie Reid), a free-spirited character added for this retooled version who represents the next generation in this changing community. The cast, comprised entirely of UK-based actors appearing with the support of Actors’ Equity Association, is strong all around. Sting does not have much to do, but does what is asked of him adequately, and Savile oozes leading man charm as Gideon. But it’s these women who steal the show with their powerful voices and big personalities, and they get the chance to shine as a unit on the memorable act two opener “Mrs. Dees’ Rant” and the feisty “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.”
The Last Ship is one of those musicals that feels just on the verge of being something special. Many of the pieces are there, but it ultimately meanders too much and lacks the cohesion to ascend from good to great. Relying on the star power of Sting to mask some of the flaws is a savvy move that will do the show well, but based on the running time alone, this one, much like a long voyage at sea, is not for the faint of heart.
The Last Ship runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through February 16th. The running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here. Download the TodayTix app to enter for a chance to win $25 lottery tickets for each performance. After LA, the tour will play San Francisco and Washington, D.C., among other cities. For more information and to purchase tickets for upcoming tour stops, click here.