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"The Last Ship" Sets Sail

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The Last Ship, the Broadway musical that's been Sting's very personal labor of love, is now afloat at the Beil Simon Theatre - and very much worth boarding. Set in Wallsend, Sting's hometown in the North ofEngland, it's a feel-good underdog story in the Billy Elliott/Kinky Boots vein (a bunch of out-of-work shipbuilders undertake to build a ship on their own), with a love triangle subplot.

The Times was critical of the book, which may not be its strongest element, but certainly adequate. Virtually everything else is first-rate. Although it starts with Sting's vision, it takes a talented team (or maybe a village) to pull it off. You have to understand this isn't a "rock musical." Sting draws on all kinds of music - sea chanties, Celtic, folk, rock , tango, and show tunes. His mother weaned him on rock & roll and original cast recordings, and you can hear the Rodgers & Hammerstein influence, both in the sophisticated melodies and the smart, colloquial lyrics. One song, "We've Got Now't Else," could be accused of ripping off "Nothing Like a Dame" from South Pacific, but it has a place. Sting is savvy enough to know what kind of song is needed at certain points in the show, whether it's an ensemble opner ("Island of Souls"), a love song ("When We Dance") or a big finale (the title song).

The cast is blessed with solid actors and singers, especially Michael Esper (with Sting echoes in his voice) as the male lead, Jimmy Nail (a big star in Britain) as the foreman of the shipyard, Fred Applegate (with a warm comic touch) as the local priest, and Rachel Tucker (a charismatic revelation) as the love interest.

The creative team includes: costume and scenic designer David Zinn, with a flexible, industrial-looking set; choreographer Steven Hoggett (of Once and The Black Watch fame), creating movement that suits the rough-hewn, rowdy characters; and director Joe Mantello, using smooth stagecraft but an authentic feeling.

"Work is a sacrament," one of the charcaters says, and it's clear Sting believes that. He honors the hard-working people ("The Salt of the Earth"?), with a nod to the Occupy movement that resonates. At heart he's a romantic, but he's sincere and has the musical chops to back it up. And he ends up succeeding where others equally talented (like Paul Simon) failed. Long may The Last Ship sail!