Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Broadway: Sting Musical “The Last Ship” Sails and Soars in Super Chicago Launch


It’s going to be a rockin’ fall on Broadway if last night in Chicago was any indication. The previews here have begun of “The Last Ship,” the gorgeously tuneful musical written by rock star Sting with a book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, choreographed by Steven Hoggett and directed by Joe Mantello. “The Last Ship” is already quite sea worthy and built for a long journey.

Enough with those metaphors. Truly, once “The Last Ship” is tweaked and polished in this out of town run, the show will be a formidable masterwork when it comes to Broadway this fall for an October opening. For one thing, the songs are delicious– actual songs with brilliant melodies, hooks and lyrics that poetically (and humorously) move along the story of a dying breed of shipbuilders in Newcastle, England.

The story is Sting’s, although it’s only partially autobiographical. The main character, Gideon, played by star in the making Michael Esper, is a rebel who went looking for an adventure on the high seas after impregnating his teenage lover, Meg. Of course, this is not what happened to Sting, a young English teacher and jazz musician who left Newcastle for London, and became a rock star and great family man. But he obviously saw these characters around him, and now they’ve come to life.

(Newcastle is going to become the next tourist destination in England thanks to Sting, as Highclere Castle is for “Downton Abbey.”)

The audience last night, for the second preview, was rapturous for the songs, the set, and the actors, particularly Esper, veteran actor Fred Applegate (who pretty much steals the show as the saucy local priest), beloved British star Jimmy Nail (who finally gets his big moment in America, wow), Aaron Lazar, Sally Ann Triplett and the lovely Rachel Tucker. Joe Mantello has the whole principal cast, the ensemble, and crew in amazing shape and all the trains, as they say, running on time.

And yes, there are those songs. Sting recorded them himself for a hit album last year, there was a PBS special and a DVD. A few have changed since then, a couple of have been dropped, and those are good signs. It means nothing was written in stone. One beautiful ballad, “Practical Arrangement,” is now omitted as Tony winner and multiple Oscar nominee Logan continues to delineate and streamline the book.

All the artistic participants are on hand 24/7, by the way, unlike what we’ve heard about other shows. Sting hangs unobtrusively around the theater taking notes, wringing hands, making changes. He is fully committed to the show, and the results of that are more than evident.

He doesn’t have to do much else. Unlike with this past season’s original musicals, everyone leaves “The Last Ship” humming if not outright singing what they just heard. The standouts are the title song and the stomping, fun “What Have You Got.” But there’s also the beautiful “What Say You, Meg,” sung poignantly by the show’s talented second lead, Aaron Lazar, and now sounding like the hit you missed the first time you played an album.

I’m also convinced that “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance” will become a Broadway classic. Sting also deftly weaves in three of his lesser known past compositions: “When We Dance,” “Island of Souls,” and “Ghost Story” that now sound as if they were waiting for a musical.

“The Last Ship” comes with a great provenance of producers– Sting’s savvy manager Kathy Schenker has put together a group that includes Jimmy Nederlander, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss (the A&M of A&M Records which launched Sting and the Police 35 years ago), vets like Roy Furman and Kevin McCollum (“Motown: the Musical”), and most importantly, Jeffrey Seller (he steered the successful revival of “West Side Story”). They’ve also got a secret weapon in Producer of Producers Manny Azenberg, who was here last night in a Yoda capacity.

These people are going to look brilliant this fall when “The Last Ship” docks (sorry) in the theater district!

PS Funny, isn’t it? First Cyndi Lauper has a triumph with “Kinky Boots.” Now comes Sting with “The Last Ship.” A whole generation of real composers from the rock-New  Wave scene are taking Broadway by storm. Very exciting!

PPS Chicago was a good place to launch this show. It’s just like the Newcastle on stage– cold, cloudy, stormy, windy–in the middle of June!

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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