Mirvish presents the Toronto premiere of a new musical written by and featuring Sting
Mirvish has brought internationally renowned recording artist Sting to the Toronto stage in a new musical featuring an original score with music and lyrics written by the singer-songwriter. The Last Ship was inspired by Sting’s experiences growing up in the shipbuilding community of Tyne and Wear during the decline of Britain’s shipbuilding industry and the closure of the town’s shipyard.
The show’s subject matter is well-treaded territory for Mirvish subscribers. The company seems to present a “British working-class struggle” show every few seasons: Billy Elliott was set against the backdrop of the British Miners’ strike of 1984, and Kinky Boots took place in a struggling Northamptonshire shoe factory. Sting’s folk-rock style score for this show is also reminiscent of the style of music in Come From Away. Comparisons with these previous shows are inevitable and, unfortunately, I thought The Last Ship lacked the clarity, flow, driving energy, and compelling sense of urgency of those other shows.
I’m always a bit wary of musicals written by recording artists with no prior experience working in the genre of musical theatre. Writing songs for commercial radio is an entirely different art form than writing for musical theatre. In musicals, some songs have to effectively convey a character’s motivations; the music acts as a short-hand to access a character’s emotions. Other songs are supposed to drive the narrative forward. Sting’s songs in The Last Ship don’t really do either.
The original songs are sometimes pretty and atmospheric but don’t advance the plot or reveal anything particularly compelling about the characters who sing them. Nor are they the lyrical melodies replete with metaphor and evocative imagery that Sting is known for in his songwriting; they exist somewhere in between.
Lorne Campbell’s book scenes (the spoken dialogue between the songs) do most of the heavy-lifting for both character and plot development. As a result, I thought the pacing of the show was halting, and I felt that story never quite found its footing. At its two-and-a-half hour run time, I also found that the show tended to drag in a lot of places.
Sting plays the shipyard foreman Jackie White and as an actor he does well enough in the role although his integration with a cast full of seasoned musical theatre performers is not entirely seamless and I thought he did stick out a bit, especially in the group numbers.
Though Sting is billed as “starring” in the show, this is really an ensemble piece and he’s more accurately “featured” in the show as one of the five principal leads—Sting only sings the lead in about eight of the show’s 25 musical numbers. Those expecting a Sting-heavy evening may be disappointed in his relatively light role.
The other standouts in the cast are the two romantic leads; Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile), a man who left town as a kid and is returning for the first time, and Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee), the woman he left behind. Both actors have huge stage presence, big voices, and compelling chemistry with each other.
However, the one element in the show that really wowed me is the production design. The show is staged on a single set comprised of a staircase and a few steel girders with the rest of the detail provided by projections layered on a series of overlapping scrims placed throughout the set, often filling the audience member’s entire field of view.
The projections by the design studio 59 productions are stunning. Downstage we have a drab, living room set complete with faded wallpaper while in the background we see the towering scaffolds surrounding the massive ship under construction in the shipyard. Scene changes happen in an instant, the projections are sometimes surreal, sometimes highly naturalistic but always magical.
Overall, I thought The Last Ship was a mixed bag. If you’re a fan of Sting you’ll likely relish the opportunity to see him perform live in this unique context but if you’re just a casual theatre-goer you may find, as I did, that the show still has room for improvement.
- The Last Ship is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West) through March 24, 2019
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets $35.00 to $159.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Princes of Wales Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of Sting and the cast of THE LAST SHIP – Toronto Production 2019. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.