Elton John struck musical theater gold with “Billy Elliot,” but Broadway is littered with the casualties of rock stars.
Paul Simon put his heart, soul and money into “The Capeman,” but the show was slip-sliding away the moment it arrived. Sting had a similar experience with “The Last Ship,” which struggled to stay afloat during its rough New York passing.
Like Simon, Sting has loyally stuck by his musical creation. “The Last Ship” may not have been a hit, but like “The Capeman,” no one could accuse it of being a vanity project. Attempts have been made to rejigger the formula for more receptive audiences in the U.K. and Canada.
The American tour production of “The Last Ship,” which opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre, continues the post-Broadway life of the show. The 2.0 version of the musical has a new book by the show’s director, Lorne Campbell, who has been brought on board to rescue the work from oblivion.
This renovation represents more than a tinkering around the edges. The original story by John Logan and Brian Yorkey has been overhauled. The context of a shipbuilding town in Northern England confronting the grim reality of industrial decline is the same, but the plot has been redrafted.
As a testament to his commitment to the show, Sting (who joined the Broadway cast toward the end of the run as a stop-gap measure) takes on the role of Jackie White, the shipyard foreman whose health is failing just as his leadership is needed most. It’s not a showboating opportunity. Sting passes through the production with the rumbling chest, scratchy voice and hangdog look of his character, whose lungs have been ruined by his trade. But his billing stokes interest in a show that might otherwise be overlooked in the unforgiving theatrical marketplace.
Having missed Joe Mantello’s Broadway production, I can’t compare the two offerings. But the problems with the updated construction are fairly obvious. This is an ambitious reworking of a musical epic that provides ample opportunity for singers to soar. But there’s something inorganic about the relationship between story and song. The musical sprawls rather than flows.
The storytelling is sluggish, redundant and rather old-fashioned. It feels as if the cargo hold of this “Last Ship” is crammed with BBC adaptations of forgotten 19th century novels. A quarter of the show could be lost without any injury to the craft. Indeed, drastic cutting would make this bulky vessel more seaworthy.
The disconnect between the musical numbers and the drama is a trickier matter. Musicals require suspension of disbelief. In real life, people aren’t prone to break out into song whenever the emotional temperature rises. A theatrical universe must be created that has its own natural laws.
In “The Last Ship,” I found myself repeatedly questioning not merely why the characters were singing but how they were singing. The performance mode of the cast and the requirements of the dramatic situation often seem at variance.
Swooping hand gestures that might be reprimanded on “The Voice” break the dramatic spell, turning characters back into performers eager to score applause. At one point, a wife (played by the dignified Jackie Morrison) dives into a number immediately after her husband draws his last breath. If this doesn’t seem all that anomalous, let me explain that his seated corpse is resting against her as she begins warbling — and that seated corpse happens to be Sting!
The work of movement director Lucy Hind shows little deference to character or plot. The choreography might just as well have been cooked up in an off-site lab and imposed on the company at the final dress rehearsal.
“The Last Ship” has many points of commonality with musical hits such as “Billy Elliot,” “Kinky Boots,” “Once” and even “Come From Away,” at least when the ensemble is engaged in a jig. But the romantic story involving Gideon (Oliver Savile) and Meg (Frances McNamee), teenage lovers separated for 17 years before reuniting with guilt and grievance, and the story of a community of shipbuilders whose livelihoods are threatened as the shipyard that has supported the town for generations is closing, seem superimposed on each other.
Sting has set the story in the North East England town of Wallsend, where he was born. The year is 1986, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s iron grip on power had labor unions reeling. This is a personal show for the former frontman for the Police. He can’t turn back the clock on global capitalism, but he can provide the people from which he springs with anthems, ballads, hymns, chants and love songs to restore some dignity to their bruised memory.
Sophie Reid, who plays Meg’s daughter, Ellen, is a vocal powerhouse whose singing attains vertiginous heights when her character discovers the truth of her identity. Savile’s Gideon and McNamee’s Meg harmonize majestically, even if Meg’s big number when Gideon returns seems so over-the-top it compels her to justify her theatrics with an explanatory line: “Because if you’ve got 17 years to figure out what you want to say to someone I think you should be prepared.”
Proletariat nobility coexists with mayhem and plaintive Northern accents. Gruff dignity abounds. One of the workers is a brawling drunk. Another spouts literary quotations like a walking edition of the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
“The Last Ship” is a musical Noah’s Ark. The new production, designed to travel by 59 Productions, seems to have been towed into the Ahmanson as a favor to a popular artist. Not that second chances should be denied, but this foundering show looks out of place in its Los Angeles port of call.
‘The Last Ship’
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends February 16 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $35-$199 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission)