Setting sail on Broadway

The Last Ship’ and On the Town’

4 minute read
Gusto and grace: "The Last Ship" (Photo of the Chicago production by Joan Marcus)
Gusto and grace: "The Last Ship" (Photo of the Chicago production by Joan Marcus)

Two new nautical-themed musicals set sail on Broadway last month, navigating its rough waters with skill and a sense of adventure.

Sting, the internationally acclaimed rock star/composer/musician, has dreamed of sailing these seas for years. His new musical, The Last Ship, is the fruit of this dream — one that has deep personal resonance for him, since it takes place in a working-class, shipbuilding town like the one he grew up in on the northeast coast of England. The story is based on the classical homecoming story pattern, with a nautical twist and a tug at the heartstrings.

The scene is the shipyards, where we meet the protagonist Gideon in his late teens, as he’s taking leave of his town and his true love to find his way in the world. His cruel, embittered father, who slaved his life away as a shipbuilder, has just died, and Gideon is determined to find a better life for himself and Meg on the “Island of Souls” (the first number of this soulful score).

Changing times, changing fortunes

But unlike Sting, his creator (who also left his shipbuilding town), Gideon does not find fortune, fame, or even a safe port. In the second scene, Gideon (Michael Esper) returns to his hometown 15 years later to reclaim the past. To his dismay, he finds that Meg (Rachel Tucker) has found another man and has a teenaged son named Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). Moreover, Gideon finds his town in a state of crisis. The shipbuilding industry is failing, and outside interests are ready to tear down the shipyard and turn it into a salvage business.

Gideon commiserates with the shipbuilders in the pub where Meg works (“The only life we’ve known is in the shipyard,” they sing). But when Father O’Brien offers to put up the parish money to build “the last ship,” Gideon volunteers to spearhead the movement. To the stirring tune of “What Have We Got?” the men commence to build a ship on stage.

The rest of this sentimental but heartfelt story has various twists and turns, including Gideon’s struggle to reclaim Meg (“It's not the same moon in the sky,” she sings), the revelation of Tom’s true identity (if you’ve done the math, you’ve guessed it), the workers’ determination to prevail, Gideon’s coming to terms with the past — and of course, the ultimate sailing of the “last ship.”

Inventive choreography

Sting’s tuneful score, consisting of the above-mentioned titles and more, has an earthy, folksy Celtic sound (pipes, whistles, flutes, harmonicas). Director Joe Mantello navigates the huge cast of 30 around the set with skill and fluidity, and choreographer Steven Hoggett provides some of the most inventive, unusual choreography I’ve seen on a Broadway stage in years. To watch dozens of bulky shipbuilders stamp their feet in protest and weave back and forth with gusto and grace (mimicking life on a storm-tossed sea) is something rare to behold.

In the end, Sting has delivered a stirring, homespun story about community, loyalty, lost voyages — and ultimately, newly launched ones.

An ebullient trio

While Sting’s musical sails the seas, On the Town, Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 classic, docks safely in the New York harbor. A trio of elated young sailors on furlough rush off the gangplank of their vessel for a 24-hour whirlwind tour of Manhattan.

You’d think it would be hard to find a trio to match the ebullience of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin in the immortal “New York, New York” opening number of the 1949 film. But Tony Yazbeck (as the eager Gabey), Jay Armstrong Johnson (as the naïve Chip), and Clyde Alves (as the amiable Ozzie) do wonderfully, thanks to their natural exuberance and elegant dancing. Together, they scour New York for its sights and its girls.

But the chief mission of their furlough is to find Miss Turnstile, whose picture they’ve found on a subway wall and who has captured Gabey’s gullible heart. And find her they do, after many adventures during which Ozzie finds Claire de Loone (an anthropologist) in the Museum of Natural History, and Chip finds Brunhilde (a brassy cabbie, played by the fearless Alysha Umphress, who kidnaps him and steals the show with her number “I Can Cook, Too”).

A wonderful ride

With its rainbow-colored, cartoonish set design (by Beowulf Boritt) of a fantasy Manhattan, this On the Town (the third and most successful revival) offers waves of wonderful music by Bernstein, with books and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Plus, there’s the thrill of watching Gabey dance with Miss Turnstile (the beautiful Megan Fairchild, currently the principal dancer of the New York Ballet), choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. All in all, it’s a wonderful ride.

Judging from the standing ovation for the On the Town cast the night I attended, Broadway is happily riding the waves of nostalgia that this beloved “oldie” is offering. (Note: When On the Town premiered in 1944, it was also a time of war.) Meanwhile, The Last Ship also got a standing ovation at the performance I attended, although for a different reason: It was Halloween night, and Sting himself emerged from the theatre’s “hull” (the orchestra pit) to take a bow, sporting a pair of cat’s ears on his gleaming bald head.

What, When, Where

The Last Ship, music and lyrics by Sting, book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Joe Mantello directed. At the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York,

On the Town, music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. John Rando directed. At the Lyric Theatre, 213 West 42nd Street, New York,

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