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: All the Way

2014-04-19 11.14.45I’m nearly always a solo theatergoer, but saw All the Way (the LBJ show at the Neil Simon) with friends. It was delightful for two reasons: first, the four of us sat down afterwards and discussed our thoughts on the show. I know it seems bizarre to get such a kick of talking about a play, but it reminded me that theater is a communal event, and shows like this in particular are really made to be discussed.

The other delightful thing about seeing All the Way with friends was that all three were English, and fairly unfamiliar with that era of history. I’m a big fan of Robert Caro’s LBJ biographies, so I was a lot more familiar with the story, though I’m no expert either. But given that they were English, I got to pretend to be an expert, and that was a lot of fun. I had tons of little nuggets to share at intermission about Johnson’s weight troubles, his wife’s real name, how much he hated the Vice Presidency, and so on. They were, of course, too polite and English to tell me to buzz off.

The first act dealt with Johnson’s ascension to the presidency, his delightful colorful personality, and his brilliant (and sneaky!) leadership during the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The second act — which all four of us agreed was superior — told the story of his 1964 reelection campaign. I didn’t expect the second act to be better, because I think Johnson’s political machinations are really fascinating. But in act two, his character really comes to life. His presidential run really brings his insecurities and neuroses into play: He’s paranoid, he’s anxious to cover up his shady dealings, he’s mercurial. He’s just about to do incredible damage to the presidency (with the “credibility gap”) and the country (with the Vietnam War, which is barely mentioned). And he’s just mesmerizing.

All this is wonderfully portrayed by Bryan Cranston. Mr. Cranston mimics Johnson both physically and vocally. So much so that from our seats in the rear mezzanine, his muddled, throaty sound was a little hard to make out at times. (We moved to the front mezzanine at intermission and had no trouble hearing from then on.) But most of all, he’s so dynamic that I really felt as though I were watching a Shakespearian character, an incredibly fascinating, incredibly flawed man.

The play itself felt as though it could have just as easily been a movie or a TV show: I do wish the playwright (Robert Schenkkan, who also wrote the Kentucky Cycle) and director (Bill Rauch) came up with some more interesting theatrical possibilities could have been explored. I can’t quite put my finger on what I mean by that, except to say that my friends felt they were watching a documentary recreation of events, rather than a live and dynamic piece of theater. As it is, a Senate-like set is backed by occasional documentary footage along the back wall. Various historical figures weave in and out (Lady Bird, Hubert Humphrey, Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover), as do various historical events (Gulf of Tonkin, Mississippi Freedom Summer, the 1964 Democratic convention). It all remains a consistently interesting, quick-moving play. You never doubt, though, that without Cranston’s performance, this piece would just fall apart. My theory is that this is because it tries to do a little too much. It shows us too many aspects of Johnson’s personality, too many events, too many people. And even with a three hour show, it’s not enough time to really figure this guy (and this era) out.

I think they’re just going to have to do what Robert Caro did and put together a play that is many thousands of pages long and 40 years in the making. According to the playwright’s bio, they’re debuting a sequel (“The Great Society”) at Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer, so maybe they’re doing just that.