Review: Broadway SF’s ‘The Last Ship’ sails smoothly and then begins to sink

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Peggy (Jackie Morrison) and Jackie (Sting) ponder their town’s future in “The Last Ship,” running through March 22nd in San Francisco (Matthew Murphy photo)

The skinny on the Bay Area national tour stop of “The Last Ship” is a tale of two halves. That first half is smooth sailing all the way, a warm and engaging story that floats on down the high seas with joy and intrigue.

But that second act, well, let’s just say the waters get a bit too treacherous, ready to make the audience scream “Abandon ship!”

The musical running at Broadway San Francisco, with mostly wonderful music and lyrics by Sting, has a resilient history. After a classic sinking on Broadway which saw the show barely finish an anemic three month run in late 2014, Sting enlisted a new book writer who doubles as the show’s director, Lorne Campbell, to completely retool John Logan and Brian Yorkey’s original book.

The result six years after that Broadway run is a show that finds lots and lots of heart at the onset. The story follows the prodigal son Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile) as he returns to the small shipyard town after 17 years only to learn that the shipyard, which is the lifeline of the citizenry, is closing. There is also his love interest all those years prior, the lovely Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee) who may or may not have moved on.

As Gideon returns, those citizens are ready to take on the powers that be in order to save their jobs and save their town, led by Jackie White (Sting). But on the path to victory, Jackie gets a cough that threatens his life, with the workers ready to rally around him and fight on.

The hallmark of that first act is the music, kicking off the show with a rousing rendition of “Island of Souls,” establishing the tone in the theatre where the scent of kelp and salty sea air are within reach. The lovely, imaginative staging of Campbell in numbers such as “Dead Man’s Boots” and the sappy sweet “When the Pugilist Learned to Dance” makes the first act feel tight and crisp, wonderful storytelling on the grand visual set and projections designed by 59 Productions.

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Meg (Frances McNamee) is leary of engaging with the return of Gideon (Oliver Savile). (Matthew Murphy photo)

While the first act establishes some great energy and a story that, while inorganic (and a bit hard to follow based on the less than clear accents), is still full of great enjoyment.

Act two’s issues run a bit deeper. While there are certainly moments that present some powerful energy, especially since act twos in theatre need to resolve lots of things, the story goes into some unintentionally comic directions. For the moment in the number “Women at the Gate” where the projections present some powerful images of women’s heroic resolve, other moments offer nothing more than plastic silliness.

It starts with our hero Jackie, who dies a horrible death. And not because it’s grotesque, but because it’s straight up trope-y cliché. When it’s time to die in theatre, it’s time to have an arm fall and hit the ground. And that’s what happened, while his poor wife Peggy (Jackie Morrison) stares, not sure what to do. So she tells a worker who walks by to build a casket the same way a mom might tell her son to go run and get some push-up pops from the ice cream truck. Remember, her dead husband is still in her hands.

Thank goodness that casket is built, because when the final battle is about to be waged, guess who shows up? Jackie, who is now in the casket! Peggy thought it might provide some inspiration.

Cool.

Speaking of cool, whatever limitations Sting has as an actor, it is no doubt cool to see him singing in an entertaining theatre production. While his cat like tread on the boards may be lacking, delving into an acting style I will call “I’m Sting,” he surrounds himself with fantastic performers at every turn. McNamee moves through space with enriching empathy, a triple threat of the highest order, doing her best with an odd transition that often comes with clichéd love stories. Savile is a hunky delight while finding the smoothness in every necessity his character deals with. And Morrison provides the audience with an experienced advocate, a woman who stands in the fire to champion her husband with aplomb.

The characters are adamant in their pursuit of keeping their livelihood, emphatically declaring “We build ships!” Now if the show can only focus on building more truth, those treacherous waters can be smoothed out in no time.

Or, maybe not.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Broadway SF presents “The Last Ship”
Music and Lyrics by Sting
New book by and directed by Lorne Campbell
The Word: A fantastic first half that flies by is followed by a second act that labors too long, getting into odd, inorganic, cliché territory.
Stars: 3 out of 5
Running time: Two hours, 35 minutes with an intermission
Through March 22nd
The Broadway SF Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $70 – $275
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.broadwaysf.com

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