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Nostalgia is a writer's stock in trade; many playwrights spend their entire careers looking over their shoulders with either condemnation or fond regret. So Sting is plugging into a fruitful tradition with his inaugural musical, "The Last Ship," making its regional premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company in the first production after its Broadway run.
And he has a pair of familiar themes to hang his music on that should engage and empathize audiences, one personal and one culturally connected. Gideon, the show's central character, is returning home with conflicted feelings after a long absence. In his past are a father, now dead, whom he rejected, and Meg, the woman he loved and left, with whom he hopes to reconnect.
He finds a town that is much changed. The bottom has fallen out of the shipbuilding industry in northern England, and the men have no work. To revive their spirits, Father O'Brien, the parish priest, encourages them to build one last ship: "You've lost so much, but you'll not lose faith."
The problem with "The Last Ship" is not the music, which has remarkable range and counterpoints Gideon and Meg's relationship against what is happening in the community. There are rousing work songs like "Island of Souls," "We've Got Now't Else" and "The Last Ship," and Gideon and Meg share some poignant ballads like "When We Dance" and "It's Not the Same Moon." The women's point of view gets explored in "If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor," "Sail Away" and "Mrs. Dees' Rant."
The most touching moment comes in the second act, when Gideon finally reconciles his feelings for his father. Three generations father, son and grandson, including Gideon's younger self sing "Ghost Song" together. One of the most inventive elements in the show is having the younger versions of Gideon and Meg sing with their older selves, and director Karen Azenberg has intensified this interaction to clarify its impact.
The performances are unfailingly impressive. Bryant Martin's compelling, charismatic Gideon strikes sparks with Ruthie Stephens' steadier, more cautious Meg, and Seth Pike and Bailee Johnson are full of energy and hope as their younger selves. John Jellison's Father O'Brien is alternately earthy and inspiring, and Dan Sharkey and Anne Tolpegin evolve into rough-edged, dynamic community leaders as Jackie and Peggy White. James Crichton is an earnest, eager-to-please Tom, although he looks distractingly older than 15. William Mulligan's crusty, stubborn Joe and Paul Castree's sensible, supportive Arthur are able but completely contrasting adversaries for Gideon.
What makes "The Last Ship" flounder is John Logan and Brian Yorkey's static, undeveloped book. After introducing the characters and basic situation in Act I, it frustratingly stalls and runs out of momentum in Act II. There is little change or growth in the characters, giving the story no place to go; even most of the songs are reprises.
As is usual with PTC, the production elements are outstanding. The giant steel plates and metal grid of James Noone's set look powerful and anachronistic under Michael Gilliam's moody, constantly shifting lighting. Gregory Gale's workaday costumes are heavy on browns and grays. Azenberg compensates for the script's flatness by shaping dramatic endings for both acts. Helen Gregory's musical direction is clear and uncluttered, and Azenberg and Lenny Daniel contribute some lively dance steps.
There is much to like in "The Last Ship," which makes it even more disappointing that it falls short of fulfilling its potential. Sting's music and the resonance of his memories of his hometown deserve stronger, more satisfying storytelling.
'The Last Ship'
The spirited, empathetic performances in Pioneer Theatre Company's production and the nostalgic energy of Sting's music struggle to compensate for the thinness of "The Last Ship's" storyline."
When • Reviewed on Sept. 16; plays Mondays through Thursdays at 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees, through Oct. 1
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. University St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $40 to $62 in advance; $5 more on the day of the show; half-price for students K–12 on Mondays and Tuesdays; 801-581-6961 or http://www.pioneertheatre.org
Running time • Two and a half hours (including an intermission)