Sting’s “The Last Ship” sails into LA

Sting is quite a storyteller in his new musical “The Last Ship” now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. It took him many years to write the hauntingly memorable songs that he sings with a stellar cast.

His inspiration for this show is a collage of the men and women that he grew up with in the shipbuilding community of Wallsend, north of England. Born in an epic landscape, the symbolism of ships and the thousands of men who worked in his town, shaped him as a man, and the music and lyrics he writes to honor them.

Before the show begins, many members of the cast walk onstage while the house lights are still up, as the audience finds their seats. The cast clap to Celtic style folk music, hug each other, chat, dance and look out into the audience.

When the house lights fade to black, foreman Jackie White (Sting) is front and center as the lights go up. Los Angeles is lucky to have the Grammy Award winning singer perform in this role. When the show was on Broadway and the UK, this role was performed by other actors.

As a narrator describes the community of people working and living near the shipyard, she speaks with a thick regional dialect that some may find difficult to understand.

When the second song sung by the company, “Island of Souls” begins, Sting fans will discover it’s the same award winning song from The Soul Cages album written in the early 90s. Sting’s lyrics are about a ship builder’s son, and a ship that carries a father and son “far away from this town,” foretelling the plot of this story

Two other songs in Act Two are from Sting’s past, including “All This Time” from The Soul Cages album, sung by Ellen Dawson (Sophie Redi) and “When We Danced” from the Field of Gold album.

During the song “Shipyard,” we learn while watching the cast sing and dance to choreography by Lucy Hind, that the men “built battleships and cruisers for Her Majesty the Queen and super tankers for Onassis.” The shipyard is the only life these men and women know.

I read that Sting never wanted to work in his town’s shipyard, because it was a scary, dark and dangerous place, casting shadows while towering near the front of his house. Lighting designer Matt Daw enhances this feeling with projections of clouds and a shipyard in sepia and gray colors on various scrims. My favorite lighting enhancements were sprays of water, so realistic I could imagine feeling the cool droplets, and a lighthouse projected on the back, while other lights bathed the set at each rotation.

Award winning designer 59 Productions set allows the actors to climb up ladders, and move easily about in their costumes by designer Molly Einchicomb. She dresses them in  neutral colored industrial clothing and coveralls.

The story is about friendship, love and perseverance. Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile) is a prodigal son who desires to leave home, before he winds up a shipbuilder like his father.  I liked how director Lorne Campbell staged Old Joe Fletcher (Sean Kearns) while singing “Dead Man’s Boots” with his son Gideon. The term “Dead Man’s Boots” means you can’t get a job until someone has died. This notion to work for life at the shipyard is not in young Gideon’s future. He seeks a better life, away from his home and aspires to sail away. Urging his sweetheart Meg Dawson (young Meg – Jade Sophia Vertannes, adult Meg – Frances McNamee) to join him, she isn’t quite ready to leave her family and friends, so Gideon sails away on a ship alone. Savile has a golden voice, and at times sounds like Sting, especially when signing Sting’s song “When We Danced.” Other moving songs Savile sings include “And Yet”, “Dead Man’s Boots” and “What Say You, Meg?” while trying to woo his sweetheart back into his life.

Sting has such a charismatic stage presence, yet so do other performers including Adian Sanderson (Marc Akinfolarin) who prefers intellectual discourse and has a preference for the metaphor. He is well read, reading Odyssey by Homer and has a gift for rhyming and meter. His lines are recited as sonnets, similar to Shakespeare.

Jackie White’s wife Peggy (Jackie Morrison) has a beautiful singing voice, especially while singing “The Last Ship”, “So to Speak” and “Underground River.” Morrison brought tears to my eyes while singing with the other women in the company “Women at the Gate” and “Show Some Respect.”

The town drunk Davey Harrison (Matt Corner) is a happy go lucky guy, never miserable and never blue, yet has a temper about what is right and wrong. He shares how he “was sober once for three hours, and it was the worst day of his life.” Corner is magnificent in this role and brings a lot of energy to the stage. As does Billy Thompson (Joe Caffrey) as the union leader at the shipyard.

While Gideon is gone, the future of the shipyard dims as the Manager (Sean Kearns) and Baroness Tynedale (Annie Grace) hold a special meeting to inform the workers that the boat “Utopia” has no buyers. If the ship is not sold, the ship has no value and will have to be taken down for scrap metal. It will be the last ship built in this yard.

With their futures uncertain, just like the miners and steel workers of this era, tensions flare and the townspeople unite and plan to picket. Foreman Jackie White (Sting) rallies the workers to take over and finish building this one last ship, while he battles damaged lungs from years of exposure in the shipyard.

Gideon returns home after his father’s death, 17 years later, to find a storm brewing at the shipyard, and with the love he left behind.

Hope is on the horizon, and the mountain of steel does sail on the sea to lay to rest a beloved man. At the end of the show, you will sing “The Last Ship” sailing all the way home.

Performances for Sting’s acclaimed musical, “The Last Ship,” runs a limited five-week engagement through February 16, 2020 at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Cast ‘Jackie White’ Sting, ‘Meg’ Frances McNamee, ‘Peggy White’ Jackie Morrison, ‘Gideon Fletcher’ Oliver Savile. The remainder of the entirely British cast includes Marc Akinfolarin, Joe Caffrey, Matt Corner, Susan Fay, Orla Gormley, Annie Grace, Sean Kearns, Oliver Kearney, David Muscat, Tom Parsons, Joseph Peacock, Sophie Reid, Hannah Richardson and Jade Sophia Vertannes.

Music and Lyrics by Sting, New Book and Direction by Lorne Campbell, Original Book by John Logan & Brian Yorkey, Designer 59 Productions, Sound Designer Sebastian Frost, Lighting Designer Matt Daw, Music Supervisor and Orchestrator Rob Mathes, Musical Director Richard John, Movement Director Lucy Hind.

Ticket prices start at $35 at CenterTheatreGroup.org, or call Audience Services at (213) 972-4400 or visit the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012). Members of all creative and labor unions are invited to set sail with Sting in his musical, The Last Ship, at on select Friday performances, January 17, 24, & 31. Center Theatre Group salutes the labor movement and the power of collective action with this exclusive ticket offer. $49 Tickets (Reg. $90-$120) can be reserved in advance, but must be picked up at the Will Call with Union ID. Use promo code UNION to buy tickets now.

For more information on the production and a video sneak peek, visit thelastshipmusical.com

The performance length is approx. 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

This review was featured in OnStage Blog.

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