“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” may not be the only musical ever set in Antarctica or the only one that tells the story of a real-life polar explorer; it’s surely not the only musical about a struggling musician and single mother in Brooklyn. But it has to be the only musical that combines the two, when the early 20th century Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton enters the studio of early 21st century composer Kat through her refrigerator. This charming, kooky, playful, tuneful, toe-tapping, original musical probably shouldn’t work as well as it does.
Much of the credit goes to the two performers, Wade McCollum and Valerie Vigoda, who is also the lyricist and plays a mean electric violin.
Vigoda is Kat, who is a recording artist – but not like Beyonce. She literally sits at her low-budget recording studio at home and records her music, which she would enjoy more if anybody would actually pay her for any of it. It does not help that her baby’s father has left her, traveling on tour with a Journey tribute band. In her 40s feeling helpless and alone, she creates a video for a dating site, Cupid’s Leftovers.
That’s how Ernest Shackleton learns about her. Although dead for a century, he travels through space and time to meet her, sing her praises, and bring her along for his perilous journey aboard his ship Endurance. In imitation of the historical record, the ship is crushed by ice as it nears Antarctica, forcing Shackleton and his men (and Kate) to float on sheets of ice for many months, subsisting only on seal blubber – which he offers to several audience members to taste.
The obvious point here is, if Kat (or you?) feels trapped in her (your) existence, think of Shackleton, who was literally trapped, but managed to survive against impossible odds, bringing home his entire crew without a single casualty. In other words, as Ernest puts it to Kat, “blind, relentless hope is what brings about miracles.”
But the sentimental, self-help aspects of “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” don’t get in the way of what is so enjoyable about the show.
The most delightful aspect of “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” are the lively musical numbers, with Vigoda’s electric violin play supplemented by McCollum’s banjo playing – both also have terrific voices — and off-stage keyboard accompaniment by Ryan O’Connell.
The show is also funny, thanks in large measure to McCollum, who is spot-on in portraying several men in addition to the explorer – all of them (including Shackleton) full of surface charm but hilariously unreliable. McCollum sets the sardonic tone from the start when he comes out as a techie sprinkling the fake snow on the set (“Man, this snow looks soooo fake, I hope Frozen looks better.”) and cracks knowing jokes: “The show is 90 minutes long with no intermission — oh, yay!” His laid-back louses offer amusing counterpoint to Vigoda’s downbeat intensity as Kat, who can’t seem to catch a break.
Ernest and Kat humorously compare their situations, finding in one song much that musicians and explorers have in common – they both need sponsors, for example, and can be depended on to lose their investors’ money.
Alexander V. Nichols’s set includes extensive video projections, incorporating actual footage from Shackleton’s expedition, while at the same time presenting as telling contrast a typical cramped Brooklyn apartment full of Kat’s tools in trade, mostly a computer station. There seems a comment here as well in how much people like Kat live our lives in a sort of virtual reality. Maybe “Ernest Shackleton” is itself a new kind of musical, a virtual musical. It’s certainly not a traditional musical –there is no choreography to speak of; the funny, silly book by Joe DiPietro (The Toxic Avenger, Memphis) serves primarily as a bridge to the songs; there’s as much happening on the screen as on the stage.
This is why it makes sense to me that BroadwayHD is livestreaming “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” this Wednesday, June 5.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater
Book by Joe DiPietro; Music by Brendan Milburn; Lyrics by Valerie Vigoda; Directed by Lisa Peterson. Set design by Alexander V. Nichols, costume design by Chelsea Cook, sound design by Rob Kaplowitz. Music director, Ryan O’Connell
Cast: Valerie Vigoda and Wade McCollum
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $89 to $109
“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” is scheduled to run through June 11, 2017.