Review: The Last Ship

2014-12-19 13.01.35So how was the The Last Ship? How was Sting? The answer to both questions, I’m sorry to say, is “not very good”. And yet as I walked out of the theater, I had a newfound appreciation for the guy, because there’s a heck of a lot of fantastic work on display in this new musical. This one gets marked as an “ambitious failure”, cross-referenced under the “worthwhile undertaking” and “unfortunate mess” subject headings.

But that’s the librarian getting ahead of the critic, isn’t it? Let me back up: Sting has written music and lyrics for a Broadway musical called The Last Ship, and for the next month he’s performing in the cast to help the struggling show get through Broadway’s dead of winter. It’s an ensemble piece about a town (Sting’s hometown, near Newcastle) that decides to fight back against the closure of its shipyard by building one last great ship. The story mostly focuses on Gideon (Michael Esper) and his long-lost love Meg (Rachel Tucker); Sting is featured as Jackie, the foreman of the doomed shipyard. It’s a dreamy sort of show, one that beautiful conveys a community in despair.

But completely falls apart when it comes to plot. To begin with, very little in the story makes sense. Starting with the central plot point: the unemployed former shipyard workers dream of building a last great ship for the fun and glory of it. Whaaaat? That would cost millions upon millions of pounds! There’s absolutely no way. But let’s give that one a pass and say it’s supposed to be a fable. Which I guess it is. There are still problems here. To begin with, plot gaps galore. I was frequently confused about how things were proceeding (“wait, so I thought they were going to prison for trespassing? No?”) and more or less gave up on understanding the plot by the end. Even fables need clarity in storytelling, right? And finally, the central love triangle (the star-crossed Gideon and Meg, and her new boyfriend Arthur) isn’t terribly compelling, because Meg herself is indecisive and wishywashy about the situation, and I didn’t feel vested in any outcome. Actually I’ll go further than that. I was bored. This story drags along and never really brought me along for the ride.

On the other hand, there’s the score. I’m no Sting expert by any means, but to me the melodies were instantly recognizable as his work and feature lovely Celtic-tinged orchestrations. So many Broadway musicals have a similar sound to them; this music sounded fresh and dynamic. His lyrics are more rock than musical theater (i.e., vaguer and less rooted in character). In years past I’d have criticized this, as I always felt that musicals need lyrics with greater specificity in the moment. But after having seen shows like American Idiot and Once which use rock lyrics to fantastic effect, I’m backing down on that assertion. I will say, though, that given the show’s book problems I wouldn’t have minded a little more lyrical exactitude.

More for the good column: the score is beautifully embodied by Steven Hoggett’s choreography. Mr. Hoggett must be my favorite Broadway choreographer at this point, as I’ve already discussed his wonderful work on Rocky and Once on this blog. Here — as ever — his work is evocative, passionate and fluid.

Sting's bio is adorably buried in the cast list

Sting’s bio is adorably buried in the Playbill

And the cast has a number of very talented performers, especially Mr. Esper (who sounds frighteningly like Sting when he sings). Of course, the performer we all want to hear about is Sting himself. Here’s what I meant when I said his performance was “not very good” at the start of this post: He’s not a very convincing actor. Not remotely. Partly it’s the way the character is written: Jackie is resolute and stubborn, but without much depth. And he just started performances last week, and may ease into the role further as the month goes by. So that’s something to keep in mind. But let’s get real. Who actually cares about his acting? We’re not buying tickets to see Sting in a Broadway show because we think he’s going to completely submerge himself in a character. What we want is stage presence. Which is where he’s more effective, because it really does add something to The Last Ship to see its rock star composer onstage and so clearly committed to his work. Plus no one can sing Sting’s songs better than Sting himself. But Sting’s not the typical rock star in a Broadway show: he seems determined to be just one of the cast. There’s no hamming it up; no upstaging his fellow cast members. He doesn’t even take the last bow at the curtain call or list himself first in the playbill bios. Maybe that’s why I came away so impressed with the guy, even though his acting leaves room for improvement.

The Last Ship isn’t a good show, and I wonder if Sting will ever write another musical. I hope he does. I’d say Broadway would be lucky to have him back. But what a shame, because THIS should have been a much better musical than it actually is. It’s got so much going for it already. Except for a good script.

My Grade: C+ (mostly for the score)
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Ticket price: $49 (TDF)
Worth it: Probably not. The cd would be, though!
Standing Ovation Watch: 90%

Review: Les Miserables

2014-12-11 19.02.27It was one of those evenings that make you understand why people hate New York City. Just about everything seemed to be going wrong thanks to a “smoke condition” at the subway station at West Fourth Street. (A “smoke condition” is apparently a euphemism for “fire”). It took me an extra 40 minutes to get to midtown and I had to take three trains and battle through massive crowds the whole way. And I was one of the lucky ones: my roommate spent three hours in subway hell. I was simply not in the mood for Manhattan.

And then I walked into the Imperial Theatre to see Les Miserables on Broadway, and fell right back in love with the city again.

Now let me just say right here that if you were hoping for an unbiased review of Les Miz, you’ll have to find it somewhere else. Les Miz brought me into theater in the first place, and I’ll always have an enormous affection for it. Many, many times I’ve told the story: when I was 11 or 12 my sister Clare sat me down in front of a cd player one evening, said “Julia, I want you to EXPERIENCE Les Miz,” handed me the libretto, and popped in Disc 1. And off I went into musical theater land. (Did I ever come back? I’m not sure I did, to be honest.) The music, the scope of the story, the outsized emotions, the rousing finale, the tragic nature of the piece, the love stories, even the nineteenth century costumes — all of it feels tailor-made to appeal to a slightly overdramatic 12-year-old.

But it isn’t just that. This sounds idiotic, but Les Miz is also um, pretty good. It’s a muscular show: three hours long but not bloated; tons of melodic richness; skilled storytelling; memorable characters. (Lin-Manuel Miranda once called the lyrics indestructible. Spot on. They aren’t exactly poetic — they’re even clunky at times — but man do they ever get the job done.) It isn’t a perfect show by any means, but it does exactly what it sets out to do, and that’s saying something.

And it’s back on Broadway. This is an entirely new version, with new sets, no turntable, different staging. I wouldn’t say any of this is better or worse than the original, except that it’s enough to keep those of us who have seen Les Miz many (many!) times interested. (Nerdily enough, I even found myself curious about the new costumes. “Oh my goodness!! What will Cosette wear next??”) Far more importantly, the cast is pretty strong. Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean doesn’t quite radiate goodness the way Colm Wilkinson did in the original, but he seems tougher, more convincing as an ex-convict, and ultimately very, very affecting. His counterpart, Will Swenson as Javert, was just as resolute and stern as you’d expect, and Nikki M. James is a pretty edgy Eponine (though I’d love to see her in another role that showcases her comic chops, where I think she shines most), I do like Caissie Levy quite a lot, and she was a strong Fantine, although I vastly prefer a more fragile, less belty “I Dreamed a Dream.” If you’ve seen a show a bunch, you mostly just want to see actors who bring something new to a character, and along with Mr. Karimloo I found this to be most the case with John Rapson as Grantaire, who’s often simply played as a drunk, but here has a very sweet relationship with little Gavroche.

All in all, my biggest quibble with the casting is just the Broadwayness of the ensemble: they looked young and gorgeous and fresh-faced and straight out of acting school. Not terribly convincing as poor, suppressed, miserable French people. I suppose they can’t help that, but I wish the directors, James Powell and Laurence Connor, had gone a little grittier. Otherwise, though, the directors have done a terrific job. This production packs a wallop.

As I left the theater, a thought occurred to me. I don’t know that I ever noticed Les Miz‘s deep irony as a teenager. Not that the show has suddenly turned ironic. Of course not! This musical is still as ridiculously earnest as it ever was. But Les Miz is unaplogetically calling out for social change, for justice for the poor. And yet it’s in a Broadway theater! What could be more commercial and expensive than that? Les Miz is just a cash cow at this point, entertainment for rich people about the miserable and unjust lives of the poor. It feels completely unfair to fault the show for this — I mean, it’s not as though I accuse Book of Mormon of hypocrisy just because it is making a lot of money — but something about its message feels craven. “Will you join in our crusade” indeed.

But that’s a different discussion. If you go see Les Miz and you’re wondering if theater can ever be an effective agent for social change, you are missing the point to some extent. Go see Les Miserables to see a moving story brought to life, to hear lovely songs,to enjoy the emotional rollercoaster, to get a sense of the epic. I think that’s what Clare meant when she told me to “EXPERIENCE Les Miz.”

My Grade: A
Running Time: 3 Hours
Ticket price: $49 (TDF)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Review: Tamburlaine

2014-12-02 18.58.29“How was that 3½ hour show?” was the first question my roommate asked me the other morning. The night before, I’d gone to see Tamburlaine, Parts 1 and 2, the Christopher Marlowe drama currently onstage at Theater for a New Audience. She called it “that 3½ hour show” because a few days earlier I’d bemoaned the running time to both of my roommates as I bought my tickets. (I don’t think I complained for 3½ hours, but it was definitely at least 3½ minutes.) Well, from now on I won’t refer to Tamburlaine as “the 3½ hour show,” because it deserves a lot better than that. In fact, this is one of the more dynamic, thrillingly staged, beautifully acted performances I’ve seen this fall.

It’s an exciting political and war story about Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson), a shepherd’s son turned brilliant warrior with an undying thirst for power and violence. No sooner has he seized a territory and humiliated its king than he is on to the next, more violent conquest. Tamburlaine is happy to cage kings, slaughter innocents, humiliate foes, cut out tongues, starve enemies, stab family members.

And yet I kinda liked the guy. That’s mostly to the fantastic performance from Mr. Thompson, who has energy, charisma, passion — and can speak quite a mouthful, to boot. He’s just one of an ensemble of terrific actors, including Paul Lazar as a series of hapless kings; Patrice Johnson Chevannes as a stately queen turned bitter slave; and Merritt Janson as Zenocrate, Tamburlaine’s wife.

As for that length. Well, yes, it is a long show, and I am a fidgety person. So there were moments when my mind wandered a bit. But for the most part, I was captivated. There are several reasons you shouldn’t let the length bother you either:

  • To begin with, you get a 30-minute intermission. So it’s not really as long as it seems.
  • Second, there’s the compelling nature of the piece, which keeps it moving at a good clip. Betrayal! Murder! Adventure! A lot like a Shakespeare play, actually. Similarly oversized characters; similarly dense language; squicky violence (a character gets a tongue cut out, which is equally as gross as losing an eyeball or two).
  • Then there’s the fantastic adaptation by Michael Boyd, who also directed the piece. Yes, it’s long, but if you can believe it, Tamburlaine uncut would require a seven-hour running time (according to this Wall Street Journal article). This adaptation has a razor-sharp edge to it; it really feels like two intense 90-minute plays, rather than one long, bloated drama.
  • And finally, there’s the production itself: Mr. Boyd’s staging is incredibly effective. It’s taut and quick-moving, and visceral as all get-out: Buckets of blood are splashed around liberally. More surprisingly, there’s a winning playfulness to the production: an actor strolls in chomping on a drumstick and gives the bone to an audience member; a Playbill is used as a prop to very funny effect, and so on. All these moments helped bring the play back to earth from its melodramatic heights. And made it all the more affecting for that.

So an excellent production of a show that rarely gets produced (the last major New York production was apparently in 1956!). It runs until December 21: I realize that few of us have enough free time during the holiday season to consider going to a 3½ hour show Tamburlaine, but you’re unlikely to regret it if you do.

My Grade: A-
Running Time: 3½ hours including 30 minute intermission
Ticket price: $31 (TDF)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50