By Shelah Moody
Cover PHOTO CREDIT: MATTHEW MURPHY
“Ships are powerful symbols for me. As a child, I watched them being built in the flash of acetylene light. Each one had great ribs of steel, like the skeleton of a sleeping giant and was tended by massive towering cranes, which moved with the slow deliberation of grazing dinosaurs. I could see from the pulpit of my imagination, the nave of a mighty cathedral turned upside down, or a coffin ship welded and sealed to take us into the next world.” —Sting
As a member of The Police and as a solo artist, Sting rose to fame exploring different cultures and genres such as reggae, jazz and world music and integrating them into his unique blend of pop music. Most recently in 2019, Sting and Shaggy won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album for their English/Jamaican collaboration, “44/876.”
Now, through his touring musical, “The Last Ship,” the prolific singer/songwriter/musician gives us a glimpse into his own English culture and background and possibly what propelled him to become one of the world’s greatest musicians.
“The Last Ship,” with lyrics and music by Sting, is based on his 1991 album “The Soul Cages” and book by Lorne Campbell. It revolves around a group of people in a small seaside town who struggle to maintain their livelihoods and their dignity in the midst of a dying ship building industry that once sustained them.
Presented by Broadway SF, “The Last Ship,” docked at the Golden Gate Theatre San Francisco on Feb. 20. Though it received lukewarm reviews in mainstream media, I found it profound, lyrical, fun and deeply rooted in the protest tradition. Plus, I love Sting’s writing. I consider him somewhat of a musical, male Toni Morrison.
“My father died in 1989,” Sting writes, in his 2007 book “Lyrics By Sting. “We’d had a difficult relationship, and his death hit me harder than I’d imagined possible. I felt emotionally and creatively paralyzed, isolated and unable to mourn. I just felt numb and empty, as if the joy had been leached out of my life.”
“Eventually, I talked myself into going back to work, and this somber collection of songs was the result. I became obsessed with my hometown and its history, images of boats and the sea and my childhood in the shadow of shipyards.”
Inside the Golden Gate Theatre, a violinist warms up. Seagulls cry. On the stage, simulated grey clouds roll by against an elaborately designed shipyard set.
Behind me, two older women discuss the panic caused by the corona virus and speculate on whether cast members will high five the audience.
I sit in the front row and I am excited. This is the second time I will see the “The Last Ship.” I’ve returned to the Saturday matinee to catch all of the nuances that I missed the first time. I asked for a $40 rush ticket and joked to the woman in the box office to put me as close to Sting as possible and she took me seriously.
So now, I am face to face with the cast as they start appearing on stage and begin to banter with the audience. English folk music starts and the violinists begins a jubilant jig. One of the actors sees my notebook asks me if I am writing a review. I nod.
“This is the story of a place and its people,” the lead actress begins.
“Look at us, are we not beautiful?”
“The Last Ship” is set in 1986, one year after Sting released his acclaimed solo album, “Dream of the Blue Turtles,” featuring Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland and other jazz greats.
Sting appears on stage with the rest of the cast members. In his signature resonant tenor, Sting begins singing one of the opening musical numbers, “Shipyard.” He introduces his character, Jackie White, foreman of the shipyard. We are also introduced to Billie Thompson (Joe Caffrey), union shop steward, Adrian Sanderson (Marc Akinfolarin), the shipyard’s carpenter known for intellectual discourse and Davey Harrison (Matt Corner) a passionate worker and notorious drunken rager.
The characters actually speak a dialect called Geordie, a dialect of Tyneside in the north east of England. A small Geordie glossary is included in the show’s program.
“The Last Ship” is known for female leads. Frances McManee excels in her role as Meg Dawson, a local pub owner who became a single mother at 16 and had to live with the guilt and shame in the small Catholic town. Sophie Reid is outstanding as her spirited young daughter, who yearns to escape the small town and tour with her band, Red Ellen and the Pirate Daughters (sounds familiar)? Jackie Morrison is brilliant as Peggy White, Jackie’s nurturing wife and fearless shipyard activist. One of the musical highlights is her duet with Sting, “Underground River” (Reprise). Sting’s character is a metaphor for the dying ship industry.
Musical numbers in the production, such as “Island of Souls,” “When the Pugilist Learned to Dance” and “Dead Man’s boots, were reflective of Sting’s Celtic heritage and Broadway composers such as Rogers and Hammerstein.
Sting wears a dark grey suit and his arm is in a sling, which I am told by theatre security, is the result of a shoulder injury. The sling actually enhances his character and makes him appear more vulnerable. I study his face. His eyes are deep set and hard to read; but I have heard that they are a luminous shade of green. His nose is stern and his mouth is a straight line.
He begins a soliloquy, his voice rising and falling like the tide:
“I am a ship builder, and I will finish this ship. We are not expendable, we are unstoppable and we will prevail!”
The cast members raise their fists in solidarity.
Check out the last ship: broadways.com.
Sting’s official website: https://www.sting.com