By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - "The Last Ship," a musical by Grammy-winning rock star Sting based on his childhood in a shipbuilding town in northeastern England, landed on Broadway with a star-studded opening.
Actors Robert De Niro, Liam Neeson, Bill Pullman and Alan Cumming, along with singers Billy Joel and Debbie Harry of Blondie were on hand on Sunday night for Sting's Broadway debut as a composer at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Despite winning 16 Grammys, the former frontman of the rock group The Police admitted being nervous before the curtain went up for the show he had been working on for five years.
"I was brought up in a pretty extraordinary place in the shadow of a shipyard and it always had a kind of theatrical feel to it. And I thought - I wanted to honor the community I came from. It was about time," Sting, 63, said.
The musical charts the course of Gideon Fletcher, a shipbuilder's son who leaves his girlfriend, Meg Dawson, and his hometown of Wallsend in search of a better life. He returns 15 years later after his father's death to a town hit by recession, where the shipyard has closed and his lover has moved on.
"Rich score propels 'Ship,'" the New York Daily News said in a headline, while the New York Times called it an "ambitious, earnest musical," adding the seductive score is among the best composed by a rock or pop figure for Broadway.
"The Last Ship" is packed with about 20 songs ranging from sweet, melodic ballads to toe-tapping dance numbers set in the grim shipyard, a local pub and the Catholic Church.
"The varied score draws on the antique sounds of sea chanteys, and often has a heavily Celtic sound — with a little Kurt Weill thrown in for good measure," said the New York Times.
When Gideon returns the shipyard is being sold and the men of Wallsend are left without the only jobs they have ever known. At the urging of local priest the men take over the yard to build one last ship.
Gideon joins them and also tries to woo Meg away from her new love.
Michael Esper ("Frances Ha") is the adult Gideon and Collin Kelly-Sordelet, in his Broadway debut, plays his younger version.
Rachel Tucker, who appeared in "Wicked" in London, is the feisty Meg and Aaron Lazar ("Wolf of Wall Street") is Arthur, the man vying for her heart. British actor Jimmy Nail in the stern shipyard foreman and Fred Applegate is Father O'Brien, the wise, understanding priest who won't say no to a pint and sometimes lapses into profanity.
While critics praised the cast and score, the New York Times said the book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey is unfocused and diffuse.
The New York Daily News concurred saying the two-pronged story "sometimes sinks this enterprise."
"Fortunately, when the story threatens to capsize, there's another good song by Sting to shore up the show," it added.
(Additional reporting by Alicia Powell; Editing by Marguerita Choy)