Sting’s legend as a musical artist is pretty safe, thanks to writing and performing decades of groundbreaking hit songs, first with The Police and then as a solo act.
Even at 68 — though he looks much younger — Sting’s name draws attention. It’s easy to see the allure of launching a national tour of his musical, The Last Ship, despite its failure to gain traction five years ago on Broadway, where it closed after three months, even after Sting joined the cast to help bolster ticket sales.
Sting’s name and rock star status likely will drive sales for limited engagements, such as the one at Downtown’s Ahmanson Theatre, where it runs through Feb. 16. But his mere presence in several scenes and few lead vocals isn’t enough to overcome the almost three-hour overbearing, yet underwhelming, production that shines only in its impressive scenic visuals.
The new book by director Lorne Campbell attempts too much with too little and is filled with simple clichéd dialogue and his lackadaisical direction seems to intentionally slow an already slogging show.
Some of Sting’s songs come from previous solo work, but in total there’s not enough variety in emotional tone or pace for more than a couple to be memorable. The story itself has potential, but its simplicity is beaten down by excessive repetition.
The men and women of 1986 Wallsend, England, have only known ship building, an industry passed down for generations. It’s not a life for young Gideon, who in the beginning leaves his girlfriend Meg (Jade Sophia Vertannes) behind. He returns about 16 years later (Oliver Savile as the adult version) to find out older Meg (Frances McNamee) was pregnant when he left and now has a teen daughter Ellen (Sophie Reid).
Gideon’s return coincides with news that the almost finished ship Utopia no longer has a buyer, so the yard will be closed and the ship broken into scrap metal, which will end the town’s only industry. Adding to the plot, shipyard foreman Jackie White (Sting) has advanced lung cancer.
Most of the first act songs, including “Island of Souls,” “Shipyard” and the title song, are lyrically basic refrains of the same concept: that they build ships and they have nothing else. They are delivered by the company with bravado and enthusiasm but not much emotional variance besides anger and defiance.
While there’s a bit of dance, Lucy Hind’s work as movement director mostly adds foot stomping to punctuate various choruses.
Campbell’s direction lacks proper pacing. The second act, which unwisely is longer than the first, begins with the women in the cast spending a few minutes interacting with the audience — adding nothing to the overall impact other than making it longer.
The game cast makes the most of the material, with occasional bright spots shining through. The first act’s “When the Pugilist Learned to Dance,” sung sweetly by Savile, does the best job of adding character depth, as Gideon explains to his daughter how he and Meg met. Likewise, “Women at the Gate” provides the lone dramatic moment during the final stand by the workers against management.
What doesn’t disappoint is the physical backdrop and images created by the company 59 Productions. From the moving clouds, projection of spraying saltwater and the ever-present looming image of the ship, the immersive atmosphere invites the viewer into the world of Wallsend.
The other presence, of course, is Sting. While his understated performance as the ailing foreman is on par with the rest of the cast, it’s unlikely anyone would recall it as special if the actor wasn’t an international icon.
If getting to see and hear Sting live, regardless of the material, sounds appealing, the Ahmanson provides a more intimate and comfortable setting than a stadium. The Last Ship, however, offers little more than the opportunity to see the legend in person.
The Last Ship runs through Feb. 16 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. or centertheatregroup.org.