"They're gonna need a bigger boat."
That was my initial (mistaken) impression of "The Last Ship," Sting's stellar Broadway-bound musical that premiered Wednesday at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre to a capacity audience that included music stars Paul Simon and James Taylor.
"The Last Ship"★ ★ ★ ½
Location:Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago. (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, through July 13. No 7:30 p.m. shows July 6 and 13.
Parking: Paid lots nearby
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Rating: For adults; contains mature subject matter and language
Perhaps I've become spoiled by spectacle, but I assumed the launch of this highly anticipated work from the highly acclaimed rocker would be accompanied by an outrageous effect. It isn't. Nor should it be. This earnest, tuneful homage to working-class men and women -- whose lives are upended when the local shipyard closes -- needs no such gimmicks.
Based on Sting's 2013 CD of the same name, and inspired by his childhood in the coastal town of Wallsend, England, this is a deeply personal show rooted in unresolved conflicts between fathers and sons. It's also about lost love, the dignity meaningful work provides and the importance of community and family. Finally, it's about the price we pay when we toss out the generational map and chart our own course.
The strength of "The Last Ship" rests with the artfully crafted songs that make up this often grand and memorable score. Its folk and Celtic roots are reflected in jigs and shanties like the anthemic ode to physical labor "We've Got Now't Else" (featuring the gruff vocals of Jimmy Nail's stalwart shipyard foreman Jackie) and "Shipyard," a rousing tune whose lyrics describe the town's residents in colorful detail. The breezily ambivalent "And Yet" tips its hat to the composer's forays into jazz-pop.
Then there's the tender "What Say You, Meg?" the musical's loveliest ballad. It's not sung by main character Gideon, the rebellious prodigal son (passionately played by Michael Esper), who returns home after 15 years to his hometown and his first-love Meg (the fiery, commanding Rachel Tucker). Rather, the song belongs to Gideon's romantic rival Arthur (Aaron Lazar, a fine, engaging singer), Meg's longtime lover and a father figure to her teenage son Tom (terrific work from Collin Kelly-Sordelet).
Finally, there's the unforgettable titular song, a driving, exquisitely expressive number that rolls over you like ocean waves and remains with you long after the curtain falls. Anyone unconvinced of the composer's musical prowess need only listen to be converted. Introduced early in the show by the avuncular, irreverent Irish priest Father O'Brien (the wonderfully warm Fred Applegate), "The Last Ship" soars in its subsequent reprises and the stunning finale.
Also deserving kudos are writers John Logan ("Red") and Brian Yorkey ("Next to Normal") for their elegant, subtle writing; helmer Joe Mantello, who seamlessly keeps the ship on course; and Steven Hoggett for his muscular choreography that reveals the resolve and determination of these characters.
As is, "The Last Ship" is seaworthy. But it could use some tweaking. The conflict between Gideon and his late father is never fully explained, diluting the emotional impact of Gideon's graveside revelation. The locked-out workers' decision to build their own ship meets with surprisingly little resistance from the salvage company that has taken over the shuttered shipyard. And at 2½ hours, the show needs trimming, especially in the second act, where the sails of this "Ship" begin to lose wind.
With those issues addressed, it should be smoothing sailing for "The Last Ship."