🎭 A Pipefitter’s Dream | “The Last Ship” @ Ahmanson Theatre

The Last Ship (Ahmanson Theatre)Last Saturday night, we saw the musical The Last Ship at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), with music and lyrics by Sting (FB), and new book by Lorne Campbell, based on the original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to write up this puzzler of a show (and, to be honest, I’ve been trying to find the time to finish the writeup, once started — crazy week).

The Last Ship tells the story of a shipyard in Wallsend UK, and the workers who work in the yard. They’ve built many ships over the generations, passing jobs down from father to son. They see them sail off, and wonder about the next job. They are about 90% done with the current ship when the owner comes in and says they cannot find a buyer for it. They are going to dismantle it for scrap. He wants to stop work, higher a smaller number of workers for less pay for less skilled work. He will then close the yard. The workers, naturally, are against this for a number of reasons: they build ships, they don’t take them apart; the good pay is going away; the jobs are going away. At the heart of the matter is the question: What are they without the shipyard, and what is the meaning of their lives without the building of a ship?

At this point, the leaders of the workers what to have a strike. But it is soon discovered that doesn’t make a difference and their hand is forced: The company that owned them is being dissolved, and a new entity is purchasing the yard to dismantle the ship and close it. So who is there to strike against?

Parallel to this is the story of Gideon Fletcher, the son of one of the shipbuilders. He doesn’t want to inherit the tradition. After his father is injured in an industrial accident, he decides to leave for Her Majesties Navy. He doesn’t just leave his family, he leaves his girl Meg. But he promises he’ll be back soon. Seventeen years later he returns and tries to rekindle the relationship. There are two things standing in the way: the whole 17 year thing, and the fact that he left Meg “in the family way” — and now has a daughter. This daughter, Ellen, wants to go off with her rock band to London, which her mom doesn’t want.

These stories come together in the resolution of the shipyard story, when the shop foreman (Jackie White) and the shop steward (BIlly Thompson) decide they are going to occupy the shipyard, and complete the last ship. This is after Jackie White breaks the news to his wife that he has mesothelioma and will die soon (and does). Gideon decides his destiny is to captain the ship down the slip, and so he (predictably) sails off into the sunset … with Meg … and the casket of Jackie White … on the ship Utopia.

This show, famously, has been a pet project of Sting (who has lots of pet projects). It is quasi-autobiographical — Sting grew up in such a working class community. The show failed on Broadway, where it played 29 previews and 109 performances. It was subsequently retooled for the UK and Toronto, and the retooled and rewritten version is what is going on tour, starting with this production in Los Angeles. From what I’m given to understand, the story was retooled to focus a bit more on the women standing by their men. Originally, a priest character was the one who encouraged them to finish the ship, and Meg had to decide between her current husband and Gideon. Those aspects of the plot have gone away, The abandoned daughter is intended to be the representation of Sting, and after protest, Gideon and Meg allow her to go to find her destiny.

I could stop here, and just go on to the performances. But the show demands more analysis. But what to say?

This isn’t one of those great shows that you’ll see again and again (unless you are a Sting fan). But it’s not a disaster either. It’s … problematic. The accents, initially, are hard to get used to. But you do. The score is good, if a bit of a downer at times. Still, there are songs that are quite energetic, with a bit of a feel of Once.  But the story is also a bit of a downer. In a musical, you often want a happy ending. Yes, the guy gets the girl, but the main focus of the story, the shipbuilders, are in for a sorrier lot. Once that last ship sails, their way of life sails away as well. It’s a commentary on our times: the yards in the other countries can build it faster and cheaper (who knows about better, but faster and cheaper are what matters). And so, the jobs go away, as they have in so many industries. As they say in Urinetown: who wants to be told their way of life is unsustainable. This play does that, but the music isn’t as pretty.

Then there is the union aspect of the show. This is why my wife liked the show — she comes from a family of union organizers and rabble-rousers. But the union story has been told before — look at the backstory in Billy Elliott, for example, for a strike that was around the same time and ended equally poorly.  We see unions at the center of Pins and Needles, of The Pajama Game, and in other shows. The union fight is a good story and an honorable story. You want the laborers and the unions to win. But their fight, in this case, is a pipe dream. Who knows if it isn’t a dream in total: the ship is, after all, called Utopia. Give me a union fight where the union wins it, and makes life better for the workers. Give me Norma Jean: The Musical. That’s what we need these days: stories that show the value of the union.

As for the love story at the center of it: You never really know if there is love there at all, or just a different form of a sense of duty. Would Gideon have stayed with Meg without the question of Ellen? The setup of their relationship isn’t as strong as it could be. You don’t become invested in their story. In many ways, I think that the Gideon/Meg story could be easily jettisoned without impacting the main story that is being told. After all, the earworm you walk away with is not any love song between Gideon and Meg, but “the only life we’ve known is in the shipyard.” But then again, where would the future Sting-but-not-Sting be in the show if that happened?

In the end, am I glad I saw the show? Yes (and not only because I discovered that the Mezzanine seats in the Ahmanson aren’t bad at all). The music has grown on me, and now I understand the story. Perhaps some years down the road a revival of the show may figure out how to adjust the stories to strengthen it. It wasn’t bad. Just not great. It is clearly moving in the right direction.

That said, when you look at the performance side independent of the material, there are strong performances indeed. Under the direction of Lorne Campbell, the characters come off real and believable. The actors inhabit the characters, as you can see by watching the characters that are in the background. The performances evoke real emotion, and the conception and execution make space believably multiple spaces.

In the 🌟 “Star” position, billing-wise, is Sting (FB) Jackie White. We all know Sting can sing well, and because he wrote the music he knows the intent of the author. But he also handles the dramatic side strongly. In particular, his scenes with his wife, Peggy (Jackie Morrison) after he finally goes to the doctor are extremely touching. It is also interesting to note that Sting, being the “star”, actually doesn’t get the bulk of the song — or in fact any real solos. He has some touching featured moments in “Shipyard” and “Last Ship”, and a great duet with Morrison, but that’s about it.

In the real lead positions are the love interests: Frances McNamee (FBMeg Dawson and Oliver Savile (FB, IG) Gideon Fletcher. Both are strong singers, and inhabit their characters well and believably. McNamee has a wonderful song in “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor” and “August Winds”, and Savile does a great job on “When the Pubilist Learned to Dance” and “Dead Mans Boots”.  I’m less sure whether they capture the spark that needs to be between the characters — is the love believable in “What Say You Meg”, although McNamee captures the anger and bathos quite well. As their daughter, Sophie Reid (IG, FB) Ellen Dawson captures the teen anger quite well, and does a great job with her songs, especially “All This Time”.

Other notable performers are Jackie Morrison Peggy White, the wife of Sting’s character, and Joe Caffrey (FBBilly Thompson, the shop steward. Both give strong and touching performances and sing well. Caffrey gets her moment to shine in “Women at the Gate”, and Caffrey gets to shing in “Underground River”.

Rounding out the cast were Tom Parsons (IG) Adrian Sanderson (normally played by Marc Akinfolarin (FB)); Matt Corner (IG) Davey Harrison; Susan Fay (FB) Maureen Summerson; Orla Gormley (FB, IG) Mrs. Dees; Annie Grace Baroness Tynedale; Oliver Kearney Kev Dickinson; Sean Kearns (FB) Freddy Newlands, Old Joe Fletcher, Ferryman; David Muscat (⭐FB, FB) Thomas Ashburner; James Berkery (IG) Eric Ford (normally Tom Parsons); Joseph Peacock (IG) Young Gideon; Hannah Richardson Cathleen Fleming, and Jade Sophia Vertannes (IG) Young Meg. James Berkery and Jullia Locascio were the understudies. It is in this ensemble that the power of the women is shown, especially with all the numbers that put the women front and center. There are quite a few numbers that do this explicitly, from “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor”, to “Mrs. Dees’ Rant”, and ending with the strong women of “Women at the Gate”. I should note the strong performance of Gormley as Mrs. Dees in the rant that opens Act II (although for a minute I expected it to be an oddly times BC/EFA appeal)

PS to artists writing their bios for a program: Please proof your links, and if you link to a website, make sure it is working. At least half of the Instagram links in the bios were bad or went to someone elses page. This is especially true if you are repeating letters in your Instagram handle (Jave Vertannes is an example of this: there is a difference between @jadesophia_ (in the program) and @jadeesophia_ (the actual handle, with two “e”s) or don’t proof (there is a difference between thom.parsons.com (in the program) and thom-parsons.com (the actual URL). You put the links there so folks can find you. They should work.

Movement in this show isn’t choreographed (as there is no choreographer), but there is a movement director (Lucy Hind) and an associate movement director (James Berkery).  There were points in the show where I was watching the actors and going “that was clearly a ballet move”, so that movement types weren’t as believably seamlessly integrated in the story as they could be. But in general, the movement was more along the lines of Irish dance or folk dance than a traditional dance, to my eyes.

Music was provided by a small on-stage band, under the musical direction of Richard John (LI). The orchestra consisted of: Richard John (LI) Musical Director, Keyboards; Mick McAuley (🎼FB) Melodeon; Ben Butler (🎼FB, FB) Guitar; Scott Goldbaum (FB) Guitar; Kaveh Rastegar (🎼FB, FB) Acoustic Bass; Nathaniel Laguzza (FB) Drums/Percussion; Molly Rogers (🎼FB, FB) Violin. Other musical credits: Rob Mathes (🎼FB) Music Supervisor and Orchestrator; Sam Sommerfeld Associate Musical DirectorEncompass Music Partners (FB) Music Contractor.

Finally, turning to the production and creative side. Overall designer 59 Productions deserves lots of credit for the outstanding scenic design which combined a roughly steel-ish structural set with scrims and projection surfaces to create an incredibly malleable set piece that could transform from a shipyard to a church to a pub to a house to a … you name it, just with some seamless projections and the dropping of a scrim or three. It was astounding to watch the transformations, and they gave a wonderful sense of space. This was augmented by the lighting designs of Matt Daw, which highlighted the sense of time and mood. Molly Einchcomb (TW)’s costumes, supervised by Verity Sadler (FB), seemed appropriate for the characters. Sebastian Frost‘s sound design worked reasonably well, although the accents were initially muddied in the mezzanine. Other production credits:  Jullia Locascio Associate DirectorBethan Clark of Rc-Annie Ltd Fight Director; Helen Jane Simmons (FB) Voice Coach; Beth Eden Casting Director, US Tour; Selma Dimitrijevic Dramaturg; Russ Spencer Company Stage Manager; Maggie Swing Production Stage Manager; Lorraine Kearin (FB) Deputy Stage Manager; Christian Bawtree Assistant Stage Manager; Broadway Booking Office NYC Tour Booking, Engagement Management, Press & Marketing; PW Productions General Management; Pemberley Productions General Management; Iain Gillie (FB) Associate Producer; Ivan MacTaggart Associate Producer; Karl Sydow Producer.

When I started writing this review, you had two weeks to see The Last Ship at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). You now only have one. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson box office. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar or TodayTix. While not a perfect show, the music is beautiful and the show moderately interesting. I enjoyed it.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB),  the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

This weekend brings West Adams at Skylight Theatre (FB) on Saturday, and the $5 Shakespeare Company from The Sixth Act (FB) at Theatre 68 on Sunday. The third weekend brings A Body of Water at Actors Co-op (FB) and It Shoulda Been You at Musical Theatre Guild (FB). To top all of that, the fourth weekend brings  The Simon and Garfunkel Story at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Escape to Margaritaville at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB), and Step Afrika at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the fourth weekend. Yes, that is the Pantages and the Dolby the same day — that’s what I get for not entering season tickets on my calendar before ticketing a bonus show. The last weekend is open, but I’ll probably find some theatre in Madison WI when I’m out there; alas, I’ll be missing both Nefesh Mountain at Temple Israel of Hollywood and Tom Paxton and the Don Juans at McCabes.

March starts with Passion at Boston Court (FB) the first weekend. The 2nd weekend brings the MRJ Man of the Year dinner (and possibly The Wild Party at Morgan Wixson). The 3rd brings Morris’ Room at Actors Co-op (FB) ; and the last weekend brings Spongebob Squarepants at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB) and the MoTAS/TBH Seder. April is similarly busy: the 1st weekend is Mamma Mia at 5 Star Theatricals (FB); the 2nd is during Pesach and is open (but has Count Basie at the Soraya/VPAC (FB) the Thursday before); the 3rd is Once on This Island at the Ahmanson Theatre; the last is Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) (and possibly Hands on a Hardbody at the Charles Stewart Howard Playhouse (FB)), and the first weekend of May is Mean Girls at the Dolby Theatre/Broadway in LA (FB)

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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