Exit Lines: Ships Coming In

Written by Exit Lines, Theatre

Sting’s new musical and On the Town dock on Broadway.

“You know what the biggest problem with that show is?” said my friend after we had exited The Last Ship, Sting’s first foray into musical theatre. “Its biggest problem is that its main character is an asshole.”

The “asshole problem” is indeed an issue with The Last Ship, a vessel with numerous leaks. But we’ll get to those in a moment. What does hold water is Sting’s score, which is partly drawn from his semi-autobiographical album The Soul Cages (1991); spirited performances of that disc’s “Island of Souls” and “All This Time” open the show, and “When We Dance,” from his Fields of Gold compilation (1994), provides a wistful emotional moment in the first act. The new songs are by turns clever, impassioned, and moving; he recorded them last year, and those that made it to the Neil Simon Theatre after a period of revision following the show’s Chicago premiere are available on the cast album. But good songs do not a good musical make. They’re a foundation, in this case for a show that is otherwise flawed from stem to stern. This is the story of Gideon, a lad from a town in Northeast England like the one where Sting grew up, who rebels against a life where the only work to be had seems to be in the shipyards. The labor is back-breaking, tedious, and dangerous, and has estranged Gideon from his father, whose injuries have left him permanently incapacitated. Vowing one day to return, Gideon leaves his dad and his girlfriend, Meg, to find a better life.

Fifteen years later (asshole), Gideon, his dreams dissipated, does make it back. Peace can only be made with his father at his graveside. More of a challenge is Meg, who, sensibly, has moved on, with her 15-year-old son Tom (hmmm…Gideon, asshole) and a long-time boyfriend, the rock-steady manager Arthur. The shipyards have closed, and Arthur offers the unemployed builders work at a salvage company. Given what we’ve seen you’d think they’d jump at the chance for less crushing work, but this is a redemptive, inspirational musical, after all, so as much to reclaim Meg as well as his pride, Gideon (asshole) rallies the employees to defy the bosses, reopen the shipyards, and build the last ship of the title.

We have two stories here. The love triangle is more strongly developed by co-writers John Logan (of the Tony-winning Red, Skyfall, and my crush object Penny Dreadful) and Brian Yorkey (a Tony and Pulitzer winner for the musical Next to Normal)–it’s unsurprising, with the “revelation” about Tom spotted leagues away, yet it reaches a more-or-less satisfying end, and the writers and actor Aaron Lazar resist turning Arthur into a stock villain. The “last ship” business, however, is hopeless. Much “movement” (what they call “choreography” these days when the performers can’t dance) transpires across the large and too dimly lit stage, to construct a metaphor that stays beached. What is supposed to be a tug-the-heart ending merely confuses, and no amount of rewriting could make it add up to anything more than a muddle.

JS41032978Sting’s heart, as always, as earnestly, is in the right place. Like Once, this is a small show about ordinary people, that director Joe Mantello (Wicked) has had to strain mightily for it to reach a certain Broadway heft. (Its rumored $16 million budget is hard to detect amidst all that gloomy lighting.) There are numerous digressions, like a priest (Fred Applegate) who offers humor straight from a John Ford oldie on TCM, that feel like padding, and distract from the main action. Which may be the point–Michael Esper, decent as Gideon, lacks the star quality that might camouflage his self-interested assholery, and make us want to follow him on his journey. The show has to come up with something besides the music to hold our interest for a draggily paced two and a half hours.

And now, it has. Sting himself has joined the cast, and will stay with it through Jan. 24. With the show rapidly taking on water at the boxoffice, there was no other choice. He plays Jackie, an elder, world-weary dockworker who gets the voice of experience songs. I hear he’s good, in his return to Broadway performing after a disastrous Threepenny Opera in 1989. But he had to displace a musician friend, the excellent Jimmy Nail, to do it, and as I don’t think he ever wanted his self-effacing musical to be about him, it must be killing him.

No problems with assholes or “movement” at the glorious, eye-filling revival of On the Town at the Lyric Theatre. A happy collaboration between Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and songwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the musical is as smashing an entertainment in 2014 as it was in 1944, and if you’ve only seen the classic 1949 movie you’re in for a treat– a lot of entertaining embroidery left on the cutting room floor is there to savor as well. The story of three naive sailors on leave in New York City has an appeal that a sickly 1998 revival diminished, and I admit to thinking that it might be better to suited to Encores!, where old musicals go to be enjoyed by buffs. I’m happy to be proven wrong–John Rando’s colorful staging has plenty of zest, and standards the material has birthed, like “New York, New York” and “Lonely Town,” are as good as new. Joshua Bergasse’s choreography, which accents the sweeping, balletic moves of Robbins, is a thrill to watch, particularly when danced by the likes of Megan Fairchild, an enchanting member of the New York City Ballet making her Broadway debut. This is a joyous, “no complaints” evening of stellar entertainment, with energetic turns by Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Clyde Alves as the sailors–and the great Jackie Hoffman adding lip and sass to her every scene. (You may have heard her in Birdman, the film and its trailer, swiping a moment entirely off camera.) A trip to New York this holiday season is all the merrier with a romp On the Town.

Bringing small fry with you? The Big Apple Circus is in residence at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park for a few more weeks, and its latest show, Metamorphosis, is a doozy. The intimate space brings you that much closer to the animal acts, clowns, and contortionists no matter where you sit under the big tent, and every moment up in the air and on the flying trapeze is a breath holder. My kids were especially dazzled by the quick change artists, who peeled off costume after costume in seconds. Only in New York, kids, only in New York.