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What are critics saying about Sting's musical, 'The Last Ship'?

'Ship' centers on a town where residents are struggling to survive after shipbuilding jobs are no longer available. Many reviewers praised Sting's score but found problems with the story.

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    'The Last Ship' stars Rachel Tucker (l.) and Michael Esper (r.).
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The Broadway musical, “The Last Ship,” which features a score by musician Sting, has opened to mixed reviews.

“Ship” centers on a town in England, Wallsend, which relies on shipbuilding for the livelihood of its citizens. Town resident Gideon (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) decides to leave the town to search for better things and tells his girlfriend Meg (Dawn Cantwell) he’ll come back for her. When he does come back 15 years later (Michael Esper takes over the role of an older Gideon), the town is struggling financially now that its shipyards are closed and Meg (now played by Rachel Tucker) is dating someone else (Aaron Lazar). The musical is playing at the Neil Simon Theater.

According to many critics, the show, which opened on Oct. 26, is uneven. New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called the musical “ambitious [and] earnest… Rich in atmosphere – I half expected to see sea gulls reeling in the rafters – and buoyed by a seductive score that ranks among the best composed by a rock or pop figure for Broadway, the musical explores with grit and compassion the lives of the town’s disenfranchised citizens, left behind as the industry that gave them their livelihood set sail for foreign lands… [there are] a host of vital performances from its ample cast.” But the show “also has its share of nagging flaws,” Isherwood wrote, writing that “the book… is unfocused and diffuse.”

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Variety critic Marilyn Stasio wrote that the musical is “intensely felt” and that “the lyrical language of Sting’s mournful score gives poetic voice to the distressed shipbuilders, but depicting their story as a heroic allegory is regrettably alienating.”

“Helmer Joe Mantello has done a masterful job of translating Sting’s haunting musical idiom (especially in soulful songs like 'The Last Ship' and 'Island of Souls') into stark imagery,” she wrote. “The allegorical form of 'The Last Ship' sets it apart from such feel-good shows, asking that we view the story in the more ancient tradition of myth and fairy tales, where it’s perfectly okay for the hero to repent and return home after years, even decades of wandering. Being grounded in the very real world of collapsing industries and a redundant work force, Sting’s story doesn’t lend itself to this mythic treatment. Although the characters only go skin-deep, there’s enough humanity in them to make us fret about realistic concerns.” 

Meanwhile, Alexis Soloski of the Guardian wrote that the show’s two plotlines – the struggle of the town’s residents and the love triangle involving Gideon and Meg – are “tied together with some fairly sloppy knots,” calling the one involving the shipbuilders “more engaging.”

“Stephen Hoggett’s winning choreography [involving the shipbuilders is] compelling, catching stuff,” Soloski wrote. “But if the structure is slack, the book indifferent, the love story lopsided, and the gender politics unreconstructed, Sting’s folk-inflected songs, with their bright percussion and yearning strings, are a pleasure and they are performed here with vigour and swagger and joy.”

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