Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sting’s Last Ship

Capital—malign it all you want, but you’ll miss it when its gone. The Wallsend Shipyard is a case in point. After decades of strikes and work stoppages, work stopped there for good. Maybe the workers were supposed to inherit control of all means of production, but they just wound up unemployed. Sting still remembers when there were laboring jobs to be found in the northern British city and the massive ships that towered over his boyhood home. The former Police frontman’s childhood memories have inspired his forthcoming Broadway book musical, which he performs as a special concert preview in Sting: The Last Ship (promo here), debuting on most PBS outlets this Friday as part of the current season of Great Performances.

Since hundred dollar-plus Broadway tickets are intended for the proletariat, Last Ship is naturally centered around the shipyard, focusing on the angst caused by its imminent closure. To keep the men’s spirits up, the parish priest inspires them to “occupy” the shipyard and build themselves one last ship. Cool, then what?

As a concert presentation, there is no acting per se in the Last Ship performed last year at the Public Theater. However, prospective cast member Jimmy Nails is on-hand to spell Sting on the vocals. A fixture of British television and recording charts, Nails’ casting is probably considered something of a coup on the other side of the Atlantic. He certainly understands the working class theatricality of Sting’s tunes.  However, the greater hook for American audiences will be back-up singer Jo Lawry, who is featured in 20 Feet from Stardom, the consensus favorite to win best documentary at this year’s Oscars. In fact, she has a lovely duet with Sting on “Practical Arrangement.”

The music itself definitely has that book musical vibe, but the Northumbrian musicians give it a distinctive Celtic-ish twist. The title tune has the right overture quality to it, yet it sounds vaguely familiar. Likewise, “Shipyard” is an effective role call for the cast of characters, including the overtly Marxist union rep (and also includes another brief but appealing solo spotlight for Lawry).  Similarly, “Dead Man’s Boots” establishes much of the show’s driving conflict, poignantly addressing the emerging generational divide.

In contrast, “Sky Hooks and Tartan Paint” is a bit of a novelty number in terms of lyrics (albeit a jaunty one), but Kathyn Tickell’s violin solo is the real deal.  Arguably, the concert’s highpoint also goes for laughs. The Rockabilly “Jock the Singing Welder” finally lets Sting unleash his strutting inner rockstar. It is catchy as all get out and loaded with attitude.

There is a reason why fans will probably latch on to “Jock.” Frankly, many of us would rather remember Sting as the shirtless villain in Dune kicking Kyle MacLachlan’s butt than as the sensitive memory play-book musical composer. Still, there is no denying his affection and empathy for the rough diamonds of his formative years.

Time passes on though, which is probably why audience shots are relatively few and far between. Let’s just say it is an older looking crowd than you would have seen in the Police’s CBGB heyday.  Regardless, it is still worth hearing Sting in an intimate setting with musicians of the caliber of Tickell and Lawry.  Recommended for those who enjoy a good labor chantey, The Last Ship premieres on PBS’s Great Performances this Friday night (2/21).