The Last Ship has indeed had a long journey since it first premiered on Broadway in 2014. Its tumultuous course has been steered into calmer waters by a new captain, director Lorne Campbell, who also wrote the revised book. The original musical based on Sting’s childhood shipbuilding town of Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, in the northeast of England, earned two Tony Award nominations back in 2015.
After a U.K. national tour in 2018, and a six-week run at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto in 2019, the 2020 North American tour kicked off at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles on January 22 of this year. Quite a journey indeed.
The story line is built around an industrial landscape starring a looming character: the ship. These massive steel vessels blocked the sun and much of the locals’ view of the sky. The crux of the story is how this proud community deals with its own demise. The doomed industry will leave an entire town out of work, which forces an unusual choice to me made.
At the top of the show, we are introduced to a range of salty characters with the song “We’ve Got Nowt Else,” with the help of a narrator portrayed by Sophie Reid, who comes back later in the show in a different character role. The cast of locals make up a prideful, colorful community.
The show spotlights the lives of several characters, Jackie White (played by Sting) oversees the shipyard and is a father figure to many. His strong-willed wife Peggy (played by Jackie Morrison) ultimately steps into his leadership role when he falls sick. Their love was palpable. They were believable as a couple and interacted with ease due to their onstage chemistry. Sting was compelling as an actor while remaining understated; at no point did he steal focus. His voice was well-suited for the regimented musical theater style, and Morrison was perfectly cast as the fiercely supportive wife.
A love affair among two young characters, Gideon Fletcher (Joseph Peacock) and Meg Dawson (Jade Sophia Vertannes) is abruptly ended early in the show, when Meg rejects leaving the town with Gideon, who jumps onto a departing ship, promising to return. He does not return until 17 years later, only to find that he has fathered a daughter, and of course much drama ensues.
Meg, a powerful female character, anchors the play. Actress/singer Frances McNamee takes on the role of the feisty mature Meg. She offers a commanding performance, and her voice is phenomenal. Her interactions with her also-aged ex, Gideon Fletcher as portrayed by the talented Oliver Savile, were fiery and touching. One of the most poignant scenes is when this hardened single mother breaks down to her daughter (Sophie Reid) and recounts how hard it was to be pregnant as a teenager.
In fact a great deal about the new book celebrates the true backbone of the town — its women. A compelling scene takes place towards the close of the show, when the women of the town stand united in harm’s way to prevent the shuttering of the shipyard.
Though it was noted by critics back in 2014 that Americans might not relate to a shipbuilding community, I wholeheartedly disagree. The story is truly universal; topics such as rage against the establishment, economic anxiety, teens standing up to a parent’s plan for their future, and of course unreconciled love are all uniting issues that we as humans deal with.
Other stand out performances came from Joe Caffrey (Billy Thompson), Orla Gormley (Mrs. Dees), Tom Parsons (Eric Ford), Sean Kearns (Freddy Newlands), along with Marc Akinfolarin (Adrian Sanderson) who provided the comic relief.
The Last Ship was born out of Sting’s 1992 album, The Soul Cages, which was itself inspired by the death of his father. The Grammy award-winning title song plays a prominent role in the show, along with other well known songs like “All This Time,” and “Island of Souls,” “When We Dance,” and “Ghost Story.”
Sting’s haunting score perfectly fits the mournful, yet uplifting saga of how the townspeople regain their pride and change their destiny. One can assume that Lorne Campbell (who hails from Newcastle) has brought his own vision to the piece as the new director, adding his own personal experience to his updated version of John Logan and Brian Yorkey’s original book. Emmy Award-winning, Tony and Grammy-nominated arranger/composer/producer Rob Mathes (Music Supervisor & Orchestrator) added his golden touch with riveting orchestrations, featuring a Scottish/Irish influence. Musical Director Richard John also did a brilliant job, utilizing the vocals of a talented cast while weaving intricate harmonies throughout the score.
Physical set elements were kept to a minimum, while the use of multiple forced-perspective video projections by 59 Productions created an immersive experience. The video used at the close of the show allowed the audience to truly feel as if we were all on the ship and were moving into the open water. Sound Designer Sebastian Frost utilized d&b En-Scene object-based mixing which highlighted the subtle acoustic nuances along with the broad bawdy sound needed in choral numbers. Lighting design by Matt Daw was moody and at times vibrant, working seamlessly with the projections; and Costume Designer Molly Einchcomb deserves kudos of her own.
The tale wraps up with a nod to protestors who consistently stand up even today for important issues. As in the beginning of the show, the fourth wall is broken at the end. The audience is offered fortuitous words by the narrator who says, ”Look at us…are we not beautiful? Are we not unstoppable?” A feeling of power emanates from the stage leaving us reminded that each one of our voices is important — and together we can, in fact, be unstoppable.
The Last Ship runs through February 16 at the Ahmanson Theatre, Music Center, downtown. musiccenter.org.