The Last Ship – Ahmanson Theatre Review

Sting and Elvis Costello sprang from the same DIY ethic spawned by the punk movement. But neither originally pursued the nihilist direction of punk, both had wider aspirations.
Costello has since dabbled in just about every musical genre. After Sting led The Police to the toppermost of the charts, he split the band and forged an admirable solo career. He also explored acting, notably jumping off the screen in Quadrophenia. He also pursued live theatre and eventually took the ambitious leap with writing music and lyrics for The Last Ship.
The musical opened on Broadway to mixed reviews, but when he joined the cast the notices improved.
The production has opened at The Ahmanson and it seems tighter than expected.

Sting and the cast

The story is close to Sting’s heart; he has spoken about growing up with a shipyard down the street. As the wrenching British economy tore through the ranks of miners and steelworkers, the shipbuilders in northern England were not spared. Ironically, this was at about the time Sting arguably hit his peak on the sales charts.
Sting plays Jackie White, the foreman. White is the moderator, trying to forge a path to narrow the widening gap between the company owners and the union workers. The former can no longer afford to sell the nearly complete ship (foreign competition builds the same for less) and the latter struggle to close ranks in solidarity (the shipyard is slated to close).
Sting’s songwriting voice translates pretty well to the structures of musical theatre, notwithstanding a few pained rhymes. He manages the northern brogue with ease, and the burr in his singing voice adds authenticity. Some of his early solo work hinted at the themes presented in this musical, and at least one previous melody is poignantly used.

Sting, dressed perhaps much as he looked decades earlier as a pre-Police schoolteacher

The original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey has evolved with Lorne Campbell’s new book. Campbell also directs the LA production.

In classic fashion, the big story of the last ship (will it be built or razed for scrap) runs parallel to the small story of an estranged couple.

Gideon (Oliver Savile) knows the life of a shipbuilder is not for him, and leaves town at 17. He promises Meg (Frances McNamee) he will return to take her far away. Seventeen years later he strolls back into town, trying to pick up where he left off. Both actors are excellent in conveying seemingly disparate goals.

Frances McNamee and Oliver Savile

The second half of the evening begins pulling these threads together, and by the end the interwoven story lines overlap nicely.

The set design by 59 Productions is remarkably effective. Scrims and lighting shift according to the setting, with the sheer bulk of the ship never far on the horizon.

The production occasionally strains against the traditional strictures of a musical; occasionally it seems the story wants to push aside the conventional narrative. As a result, a few numbers seem too prefabricated and only exist to meet the apparent need of a timely song and dance number.

Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy about The Last Ship.

Photos by Matthew Murphy.

Through February 16.

Tickets here.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.