At the close of the first act of The Last Ship – the musical conceived by Sting that just opened on Broadway – a group of workers charge the fence that locks them out of the shutdown shipyard where they had worked all their lives. It feels and looks as if they are bolting straight into the audience, and that image perfectly captures The Last Ship's visceral impact. We feel both their rage and their frustration as palpably as a boot in the chest.
While not literally autobiographical, The Last Ship finds its emotional core in the sense of entrapment Sting felt as a young man growing up in the shipbuilding community of Wallsend in northern England. It's a tribute to Sting's songwriting that The Last Ship does not at all seem like a play constructed around a string of pop tunes. Quite the opposite, in fact. The songs Sting composed for The Last Ship (particularly "Dead Man's Boots" and "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance") weave inextricably into the lives of the play's characters and their Anglo-Celtic heritage. Even the three songs Sting recast from his solo work ("When We Dance," "Island of Souls" and "All This Time") settle beautifully into the musical and take on new life there.
Michael Esper deftly plays the role of the adult Gideon Fletcher (the name echoes Sting's birth name, Gordon Sumner), who fled Wallsend in his youth, only to return 15 years later to reclaim the girl he left behind. (Collin Kelly-Sordelet plays the younger Gideon.) Gideon is stunned to learn that his youthful love is now seriously involved with someone else – and that she was pregnant when he left and had given birth to their son in his absence. That love triangle grows entangled with the larger plot of the shipyard's closing, and the workers' determination to build one last ship as a final testament to their humanity and, really, the meaning of their lives. Joe Mantello's deft direction, David Zinn's hauntingly beautiful industrial set, the expressive book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, and the excellent ensemble cast (notably Jimmy Nail as a fiery worker, and Rachel Tucker, who plays the older role of Gideon's love, Meg Dawson) vividly evoke the world of Wallsend. You can almost feel the breeze coming off the river Tyne.
His childhood, his troubled relationship with his father, and the confining environment of Wallsend have been recurrent themes in Sting's work. His 1991 album, The Soul Cages, and Broken Music, the autobiography he published in 2003, in particular, explore them in powerful detail. He revisits them again here, to telling effect. Well beyond his own life, Sting views such themes as universal – everyone's desire to venture into the world to discover who they might become. The Last Ship ultimately rises to that mythic stature – a young boy and, years later, a group of men setting sail on a ship, traveling along life's river, bound for parts unknown. And then, hopefully, returning home.