Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 29, $55-$147 (daily $30 lottery)
Watching The Last Ship, which opened last night at the Neil Simon Theatre, you’re likely to think you’ve seen this all before, as it rather precisely follows the pattern of 2013 Tony winner Kinky Boots: Both musicals feature music and lyrics by a pop star (Sting for The Last Ship, Cyndi Lauper for Kinky Boots), both are set in a British working-class community, and both involve a son debating whether he should follow in his father’s footsteps. And just as Boots was vastly overrated, the same is likely to happen with Ship. Based on Sting’s childhood experiences in the shipbuilding town of Wallsend in the northeast of England, The Last Ship focuses on Gideon Fletcher, first as a fifteen-year-old kid (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) wanting something more than his tough father (Jamie Jackson) has planned for him, then returning fifteen years later (now played by Michael Esper) for his dad’s funeral and trying to get back together with his old girlfriend, Meg (Dawn Cantwell, then Rachel Tucker). But the Wallsend he’s come back to is in the midst of a battle with corporate suit Freddy Newlands (Eric Anderson), whose company is taking over the docks and turning the shuttered shipyard into a scrap yard. With the help of former welder Arthur Milburn (Aaron Lazar), who is in love with Meg and is a surrogate father to her son, Tom (Kelly-Sordelet), Newlands tries to convince the unemployed shipbuilders to come work for him, but their leader, Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), wants no part of it. “You could die and hope for heaven / But you’d need to work your shift / And I’d expect ye’s all to back us to the hilt / And if St. Peter at his gate were to ask you why you’re late? / You’d tell him that you have to get a ship built,” he sings in “Shipyard,” in which all the men join in on the chorus, stamping their feet as they declare, “And the only life we’ve known is in the shipyard.” It’s the strongest song in the show, but it also emphasizes their refusal to face the facts that the world is changing while they’re not, adding to the many holes in the script.
In the second act, the book, by Tony winner and Oscar nominee John Logan (Red, The Last Samurai) and Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), falls apart as Father James O’Brien (Fred Applegate), previously the comic relief, becomes the overly melodramatic sentimental inspiration, the love triangle between Meg, Gideon, and Arthur quickly turns stale and unbelievable, and the shipbuilders’ occupation of the yard is just plain ridiculous. Even the staging, by two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello (Take Me Out, Assassins) and choreographer Steven Hoggett (Once, The Glass Menagerie), can’t keep things afloat, as it also recalls Kinky Boots as the lads set out to build a ship for themselves. The cast is mostly excellent, particularly Tucker and Nail in their impressive Broadway debuts and another first-timer, Shawna M. Hamic, as Beatrice Dees, the owner of the Ship in the Hole pub, who offers “Mrs. Dees’ Rant” after intermission. While Sting’s score can be refreshing at times, steering clear of Broadway-fication, it can also be repetitive and preachy (“Life is a dance, a romance where ye take your chances / Just don’t be left on the shores of regretful glances”). As the two main narratives converge, the plot grows ever-more convoluted, getting lost in tired us-vs.-them themes that drain the show of any real depth, leaving The Last Ship bobbing on the surface, going nowhere.