by Nita Congress · November 26, 2014
Sally Ann Triplett and the cast | Joan Marcus
Haunting music that lingers in your head hours, days, weeks after first hearing. Smart lyrics that effortlessly soar from heartbreaking wistfulness to gleeful sassiness. Exuberant dancing—how can you fail to be thrilled by a stage full of dancers wielding welding torches? Energy crackling from the literal stern to the bow of the encompassing steel set. And the best damn sound system I have ever heard in a Broadway theater. Every note, every word, crisp and clarion clear. And all well worth hearing as written by composer and lyricist rock legend Sting.
The Last Ship takes place in a little town called Wallsend, so named because it’s where Hadrian’s wall ends in North England. But that’s not all that’s at an end. Like Pittsburgh, like Detroit, like other once-mighty industrial cities around the world, the industry that fueled the town is gone, never to return. This was a shipbuilding town, and it’s populated by shipbuilders.
Steel in the stockyard
Iron in the soul
We’ll conjure up a ship
Where there used to be a hole.
But there are no more ships to build. And it’s that melancholic realization that throbs through the score (listen here for a sample sung by Sting himself.)
And it’s what leads to the question that many of the show’s characters wrestle with—and which we, the audience should as well. “Where’s a man to find dignity without his work?”
A solution—improbable, ephemeral—is proffered by the town’s cheery and indefatigable priest. And the desperate men sign on to build a ship, the last ship, for the client humanity, grace, and redemption.
A love story runs through it all; two really. Gideon sailed away fifteen years ago, fleeing a dead-end future and a fierce father, but leaving behind a sweetheart. He returns and, like the other men, is inspired and renewed as he takes up the work at hand.
There’s a mad hopefulness to it all. And the show’s message of grabbing life and just holding on, come what may, is refreshing, bracing, affirming.
Life is a dance, a romance where ye take your chances
Just don’t be left on the shores of regretful glances
And wrapped around and propping up this positivism is expert stagecraft both old-fashioned and new-fangled. Smooth-gliding sets unexpectedly lift and tilt and take us to new heights and sights. And equally smooth-gliding choreography and direction moves our heroine barmaid from one end of the pub to the other, singing out her romantic dilemma as she serves and tidies, until at song’s end, the bar has been emptied of customers, the chairs are stacked on the tables, and the mood has completely shifted with these few simple moves. To my mind, this is just as magical as sets that morph and meld from hillside to ship’s hold and back again.
The acting and singing are more than grand, and the direction and sound superb. The tale is at times fanciful, to be sure, but the opportunity it offers for rueful nostalgia, for contemplation of a time and a place—not so distant but light years away—when people made things, and life had an intrinsic meaning consequently:
In our hands are the tools that we
Leave to our sons
Traditions and skills that we
Hope to pass on
Till we sail.