Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (What’s Not to Love)?

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

What do a struggling, 21st century single mom musician/composer and a long-dead early 20th century explorer have in common? In a word: courage. Courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity is the message of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a hugely entertaining and powerfully uplifting 90-minute “epic musical adventure” now playing at the Tony Kiser Theatre.

The musician is Kat (energetically and winningly played by electric violinist extraordinaire Val Vigoda, who also penned the show’s lyrics), who has been awake and multi-tasking for 36 hours in her freezing apartment: working on her music while trying to attend to her off-stage crying baby. The explorer is Ernest Shackleton (portrayed with irrepressibly engaging charm by Wade McCollum), who led three treacherous expeditions to the Antarctic—most famously in 1914-17, when he traveled over 800 miles in an open boat seeking help that would lead to the nearly miraculous rescue of 22 stranded crewmen.

When we first meet Kat, she is surviving as best as she can, despite her rather bleak situation. Her baby daddy (McCollum again) has left her to tour with a Journey cover band. She’s making ends meet thanks to a gig writing a soundtrack for a video game called “Star Blasters,” until she’s unceremoniously replaced by a high school senior. Things start looking up when she receives a very long distance phone call—a response to her profile on a pessimistic-sounding dating site called “Cupid’s Leftover’s.com”. Who’s calling? It’s Ernest S., who heroically travels through time and space (fittingly arriving from the Antarctic via Kat’s rime-enveloped fridge), just to meet her. Shackleton was a true swashbuckler, a “full-fledged optimist” who brought a banjo along on his expeditions to keep his crew entertained. His message to Kat, who is hovering on the brink of despair, is “Optimism is a form of true moral courage.” He declares that Kat is his muse—flattering, flirting, and encouraging her through an irresistible mix of confidence and charm. McCollum’s portrayal is so incredibly winning that it would seem impossible not to be swept away by Shackleton’s positivity and can-do enthusiasm.

As Kat works with Shackleton to accomplish the daring rescue, she and Ernest form a bond that drifts between friendship and love. Together, they save all 22 of Shackleton’s men, along with Kat’s faith in her art, herself, and the prospect of a brighter future. The action is heightened by accompanying video projections showing actual footage of Shackleton’s expedition and rescue operation. Kat is deeply inspired by her time spent with her intrepid visitor, a man who “Always came through and never gave up, never gave in.” She promises her infant son that she’ll always be there for him, singing, “I’ll be your Ernest.” When her boyfriend returns from his Journey journey, expecting that Kat will welcome him back and allow him to pick up where they left off, she finds the courage to stand up to him, embracing Shackleton’s advice to “Be your own beacon of hope.”

Overall, Vigoda’s lyrics are more interesting than the music (composed by Brendan Milburn), which tends to be somewhat repetitive. The individual songs aren’t listed in the Playbill, so it’s difficult to identify individual tunes. However, one song that stands out as both an emotional and musical highlight is “In the Eye of the Storm,” a sweet lullaby that Shackleton sings to calm Kat’s fussy baby: “Don’t regret what has been. Be the calm in the eye of the storm—sound advice for anyone. Vigoda’s electric violin is nothing short of amazing; it’s even further enhanced through the creative use of electronic playback, allowing to layer her virtuosity.

The show’s dazzling and innovative high-tech imagery and sound (production design is by Alexander V. Nichols; music direction, orchestrations, and additional music by Ryan O’Connell; sound design by Robert Kaplowitz (Tony winner for Fela!) and Ahren Buhmann), plays such a key role in the performance that it almost becomes a third character. The designers have turned the stage into a fake snow-filled polar expanse, incongruously backed by Kat’s array of computers and digital imaging equipment. Tied together by Joe DiPietro’s (Tony Award winner for Memphis) witty book and Obie and Lortel Award-winner Lisa Peterson’s laser-sharp direction, the divergent worlds of modern day musician/mom and early 20th century polar explorer somehow believably and seamlessly mesh together—including that whacky refrigerator entrance.

Did the monumental meeting between Kat and Shackleton really take place? Well, as Shackleton says, “Strange things happen when you haven’t slept in 36 hours.” No matter. The show leaves Kat and the audience much richer for the experience.

The moral can be summed up in a song lyric: “We might hit some really rough seas now and then, but we’ve braved them before and we’ll brave them again.” With so much of Off Broadway focusing on the darker side of life, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me’s message of optimism, hope, and self reliance is a most welcome one, adding up to an original and delightful 90-minute theatrical adventure.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me plays at the Tony Kiser Theatre (305 W. 43rd St.) through June 11. For ticket information: http://ernestshackletonlovesme.com/

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Theatre Review: Judith Light in Neil LaBute’s “All the Ways to Say I Love You”

judith-light

“What is the weight of a lie?” That’s the opening line and key question of Neil LaBute’s new one act/one character play now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Although the question—posed by high school English teacher/guidance counselor Mrs. Johnson (Tony, Drama Desk, and Emmy Award winner Judith Light, currently starring in the Golden Globe winning TV series “Transparent”)—seems theoretical, one hour later, when the play (really a monologue) ends, we learn that the answer is in fact, quite literal.

Mrs. Johnson first pondered the question many years before, when a student, inspired by something the teacher mentioned in passing about the “weight of the soul” asked it in class. Mrs. Johnson tells us, “For once, I didn’t have an answer. The teacher’s job is to put forth answers. It doesn’t have to be the right one…We work together to find the answer. And the truth in the end may surprise us all—even me.”

The question about the weight of a lie provides the foundation for the play. Mrs. Johnson is living with the consequences of a very big lie: she violated the #1 law of teacher/student relationships and slept with one of her students, a “second year senior” named Tommy. And that’s not her worst transgression: she became pregnant (she and her husband had tried and failed to conceive a child) and deceived her husband into believing the child was his. Now, years later, she struggles with the guilt of her actions while attempting to somehow rationalize them as acceptable. One thing she knows with absolute certainty: the weight of her particular lie is exactly 6 pounds, 3 ounces.

Ms. Light, an accomplished, respected, and much-loved multiple award-winning actress, gives a breathtakingly watchable performance, covering a wide swath of emotional territory within the short time span of the play. Her Mrs. Johnson is by turns contrite, unrepentant, lascivious, and tortured. Light transitions seamlessly through each of these disparate facets of her character—a master’s class in acting. At the end, we’re left to wonder if Mrs. Johnson is crazy—driven mad by the basic inescapable wrongness of her actions and the resulting guilt that goes along with bearing the weight of the lies she has created to cover up her wrongs.

Leigh Silverman (Violet, Well, LaBute’s The Way We Get By, and the upcoming Sweet Charity with Sutton Foster) provides able direction to Ms. Light and Rachel Hauck’s realistic, somewhat claustrophobic set design of Mrs. Johnson’s guidance office creates just the right atmosphere. But ultimately, the play’s the thing, and in this case, things don’t really add up.

All the Ways to Say I Love You isn’t very effective or satisfying, for several reasons. First, it’s never clear to whom Mrs. Johnson is speaking. Yes, she’s addressing us, the audience, but as stand-ins for whom? A jury? God? Her husband? Herself? The lack of context is confusing and off-putting. Second, it’s difficult to feel much (if any) empathy for Mrs. Johnson. Although she says she loves her husband, she betrayed him—along with her professional ethics—by turning to an impressionable boy in an attempt to fill the void in her passionless marriage. When she speaks graphically (and rhapsodically) about her erotic adventures with Tommy, it’s difficult to suppress the “ick” factor. And the fact that Mrs. Johnson believes that her student benefited from the inappropriate liaison (“I pushed him to go to college; he is successful because of me”) doesn’t help her cause. True, LaBute loves to make us squirm by forcing us to confront the most unattractive, odious parts of ourselves. (He has said, “We humans are fairly barbarous bunch.”). But because he shows us nothing of Mrs. Johnson’s better nature, she remains distant from us, at arm’s length, to be regarded as more of a curiosity than as a fellow human being.

On paper, All the Ways to Say I Love You isn’t one of LaBute’s weightier works; it doesn’t hold its own compared to In the Company of Men, Reasons to be Pretty, Fat Pig, and his other, more substantial plays. Without the luminous Ms. Light inhabiting the tortured, lustful soul of Mrs. Johnson, the play would no doubt be a good deal less effective, the tale much less engaging. But the opportunity to experience Ms. Light’s incandescent acting magic up close and personal in the intimate space of the Lortel adds infinite heft to the lightweight material. As one of the premier actresses of her generation, working across television, film, and thankfully, live theater mediums, Judith Light never brings us anything less than her “A” game. Through her work and commitment to her craft, she repeatedly shows her audiences “all the ways to say I love you”.

All the Ways to Say I Love You is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., through October 23. For ticket information: www.mcctheater.org

SEX WITH STRANGERS

Billy MagnussenSecond Stage, Kiser Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.

How far would you go to achieve success?

Lead Cast: Anna Gunn (Olivia), Billy Magnussen (Ethan)

In a Nutshell: Can anyone truly know another person? That’s the key issue in this excellent two-hander by playwright Laura Eason. In fact, the play’s first line is, “Who are you?” While the characters’ initial encounter does lead to the activity described in the play’s title, even after they develop a relationship, they essentially remain strangers.

What’s It All About? Olivia and Ethan are both writers. She is a serious author who is still nursing the wounds from her failed novel years before. As she nears 40, Olivia continues to write, but remains paralyzed by her fear of rejection. She shows her work to no one and has taken a job teaching. In contrast, Ethan, around 10 years her junior, is a confident, charming Internet/social media savvy guy whose crass “Sex with Strangers” series of books (based on his true life exploits of bedding a different woman every day for a year) are wildly successful. He has thousands of Twitter followers and has signed a lucrative movie deal based on his work.

The two strangers meet at a bed and breakfast in rural Michigan where she has holed up to write. He arrives, also to write, during a snowstorm. Conveniently, the owner is away and there are no other guests. Although Ethan’s character is a self-described “a-hole,” it soon becomes evident that there is a lot more to this handsome dude-type guy than either Olivia or the audience suspects. It turns out they have a friend in common, a Pulitzer-winning author who has sent Ethan to the inn so that he can finish his screenplay. We discover that Ethan is a lot smarter than his “Sex with Strangers” persona. He has read Olivia’s book and encourages her not to give up. He also shares that he has ambitions to move beyond his pop culture success and to be accepted as a legitimate author.

Food for Thought: In addition to the theme of the basic unknowability of another person, Sex with Strangers explores the often blurry line between accepting another person’s help and exploiting that person for one’s own benefit. Because of his contacts and knowledge of social media, Ethan has the ability to expose Olivia’s work to a huge new audience. He convinces her to put her failed novel on the Internet under a pseudonym. He also reads her new work (defying her wishes) and sets her up with his agent. Much to her surprise, Olivia finds herself, at 40, winning the critical acclaim and success that has eluded her in the past. Ethan asks her to turn down a book deal with a venerable publishing house and to instead let him digitally publish her work on his new website to help him establish a reputation apart from his bad boy success. After all, doesn’t she owe him? If not for him, she would still be toiling away in obscurity.

The situation reminds me of the Jack White song “Icky Thump,” which asks: “Who’s using who? What should we do? Well you can’t be a pimp and a prostitute too.” Just who is using who? I won’t give away more of the plot. Let’s just say that the characters are complex and do not act in stock, expected ways. You and your theatre-going companion(s) can ponder the question over an after theatre cocktail.

The Performances: Both actors are excellent and do a terrific job portraying the complexities of their characters and landing the playwright’s comic and dramatic scenes. Fans of the hit TV show “Breaking Bad” will recognize Anna Gunn from her Emmy-winning role as Walter White’s wife Skyler. Theatre fans know Billy Magnussen from his hilarious, Tony-nominated turn as the boy toy Spike in 2013’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Magnussen turns in an especially fine performance here, masterfully showing us the sensitive, intelligent man underneath the swagger and 6-pack abs. And Gunn, so downtrodden and guarded when we initially meet her character, skillfully shows Olivia’s evolution into the ambitious, confident writer she always dreamed of becoming.

Should You Go? Yes, but don’t wait too long: as of this writing, the show runs only through August 31. Also keep in mind, this show is strictly for adults. (After all, the word “sex” is in the title). If you are at all prudish about watching simulated (though not explicit) sex on stage, choose another show.

More About the Cast and Director: Look for Gunn this coming fall starring as Ellie Miller in the series “Gracepoint” on Fox. Magnussen just wrapped the film version of “Into the Woods,” starring as Rapunzel’s Prince, due out this Christmas. TV watchers will recognize director David Schwimmer’s name: although he is best known for his Emmy-nominated turn as Ross on the hit show “Friends,” he also boasts an impressive résumé as a theatre actor and director.

Ticket Info: Theatre lovers under 30 can take advantage of 2nd Stage’s “30 Under 30” program by purchasing $30 tix at the theatre. ID is required. For the rest of us, discount tickets (50% off) are available at the TKTS Times Square ticket booth.

JUST JIM DALE

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Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre (111 W. 46th St., between 6th & 7th Avenues)

If you’re in the mood for an evening of light entertainment, this one-man autobiographical review starring the very charming Jim Dale may be just the ticket.

In a Nutshell: Chances are, if you are of less than “a certain age,” you’re not familiar with British/American star Jim Dale. However, once you get to know him, you’ll be a fan. Far from being “Just” Jim Dale, this versatile performer is a seasoned pro who has achieved success in practically every field of show business.

Mr. Dale is ably accompanied by Mark York, billed as “Mr. Dale’s personal pianist since 2006.” The show is written by Mr. Dale and directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.

What’s It All About? In Just Jim Dale, the Tony-winning song and dance man shares the personal story of his transformation from little Jimmy Smith in the tiny English town of Rothwell, to performing 14 shows a week in British music halls, an early career as a pop singer, to the Shakespearian stage, and on to great success as Jim Dale.

Dale’s musical hall past serves him well in Just Jim Dale—he has an easy, companionable style that extends over the footlights to directly engage with the audience. And the small size of the Laura Pels makes it the perfect venue for this intimate one-man performance.

Dale has enjoyed an incredibly diverse 60-year career in show business. He has triumphed in film, television, music, theatre, and even audiobooks: he created nearly 150 different voices for all of the characters in the award-winning “Harry Potter” audiobooks series. (If you haven’t listened to the audiobooks you can hear a few examples of those characterizations in Just Jim Dale).

He won a Best Actor Tony in 1980 for his performance in the title role of Barnum, has five Tony nominations, four Drama Desk Awards, and four Outer Critics Circle Awards. Other Broadway performances include Scapino, Joe Egg, Me and My Girl, Candide, and the role of Mr. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera.

And I bet you didn’t know that he penned the lyrics for the Oscar-nominated hit tune “Georgy Girl”. That song (performed by the Seekers) was a huge hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard chart in 1967 and selling over 7 million records. Dale performs the song in Just Jim Dale (and at least half of the audience left the theatre humming its catchy riff).

Furthermore: Incredibly, Dale is now 78 years old. His years of training as a dancer have served him well: he is whippet thin, as lithe as a gymnast, and has the stamina and flexibility of a man less than half his age. Since most of the audience members at the Pels appeared to be of his generational cohort, they were particularly in awe of his youthful vigor. It was also obvious that many of them had seen Dale in his many New York theatrical appearances. So Dale was performing for his fan base and he delighted in their warm embrace.

Show Highlights:

–        No need for the standard “please turn off your cellphones” pre-show announcement at this production. The audience is treated to a very funny prerecorded (by Dale) explanation of what will happen to anyone whose phone rings during the performance.

–        “There’s a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute” from Barnum. It’s a terrific song (by musical great Cy Coleman) and Dale nails it: “Why you can bet I’ll find some rube to buy my corn. Cause there’s a sure-as-shooting sucker born a minute, and I’m referrin’ to the minute you were born.” You’ll see why he won the Tony for his performance.

–        “You Think You Haven’t Quoted Shakespeare?” is a witty patter number made up of commonly used snippets from Shakespearian works strung together into sentences. One of the tour de force moments in the show, along with “The Museum Song” from Barnum, another star turn where Dale has an opportunity to show off his ability to deliver a rapid-fire vocal.

–        “Georgy Girl.” Who knew Dale wrote those lyrics? “Hey there, Georgy Girl. There’s another Georgy deep inside. Bring out all the love you hide and, oh, what a change there’d be. The world would see a new Georgy Girl.” (How long until you get the song out of your head)?

Should You Go? If you know who Jim Dale is (which probably means you’re over 50) you’ll delight in hearing his picaresque tales, listening to him sing, and watching his “rubber man” dance moves. If you’re a 20- or 30-something with more modern tastes, you may be advised to choose another show.

Caveat: With a run time of only 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission), the show seems a bit overlong, even for the most ardent fan.

Trivia: In The Simpsons episode “Lisa the Beauty Queen”, Homer sings a parody of “Georgy Girl”: “Hey there, blimpy boy! Flying through the sky so fancy free!”

Ticket Info: As of this writing, the show runs through August 10. Half-price tickets are frequently available at the TKTS booth in Times Square.

Just Jim Dale show website

Off Broadway Favorites of 2013

ImageI’m not calling this post the “Best of” Off Broadway 2013, because there is so much to see and so much that I didn’t see (i.e., Fun Home, Here Lies Love, Buyer & Seller, etc.).

However, here are a few words about some of my favorites.

Tally’s Folly (Roundabout): Two people (Matt Friedman and Sally Talley), one setting (An old boathouse on the Talley place, a farm near Lebanon, Missouri). Fortunately, the actors playing Matt & Sally in Roundabout’s revival of this 1979 Lanford Wilson Pulitzer-prize winning play were Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson. Their performances, along with the simplicity and truth of the play, wove a 97-minute spell over the audience as we watched two disparate people find love, in spite of their differences and the turbulent world around them. Every minute was glorious.

The Whale (Playwrights Horizons): Two words: Shuler Hensley. He plays Charlie, a 600-pound apartment-bound man whose deep unhappiness is causing him to slowly eat himself to death. Hensley, a Tony winner for his portrayal of Jed in the revival of Oklahoma, is one of our best stage actors. Wearing an enormous fat suit and breathing laboriously, he still manages to show us the humanity and beauty inside his character. It’s a performance I’ll never forget.

Nothing to Hide (Werner Entertainment/Ostar Productions at Signature): Starring Helder Guimarães and Derek DelGaudio. Using nothing more than decks of playing cards (and a cameo appearance by a sock monkey) these two masters of distraction and sleight of hand amuse and amaze audiences. Direction is by Renaissance man Neal Patrick Harris, who is President of the Academy of Magical Arts and—who knew?—a bona fide “magic geek”. DelGaudio is a Los Angeles-based magician who consults for Walt Disney Imagineering and has been named Close-up Magician of the Year for 2012 and 2013. Guimarães, a Portuguese now based in California, became the youngest ever World Champion of Card magic in 2006 at the age of 23. The show came to NYC from a record-breaking run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. These charming performers make it look easy, but they will amaze you.

What’s It All About? (New York Theatre Workshop): It’s all about talent and creativity. Subtitled “Bacharach Reimagined,” this innovative production was conceived by Kyle Riabko, who has appeared on Broadway in Spring Awakening and Hair. Riabko, along with an energetic young cast of singers (who also play all of the instruments in the production) perform Riabko’s new arrangements of all those Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs that are etched into your brain: “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” “Alfie,” “Always Something There to Remind Me,” and many more. The songs are all about love and loss, and here the emphasis is on the lyrics, which are often very touching. There are several sofas on both sides of the stage where some members of the audience are seated. I was lucky to be seated there, practically on the set. It brought back memories of long evenings spent in friends’ basements, hanging out listening to records. Riabko and the other 20-somethings in the show allow the audience to hear these old standards in new, exciting ways. I’m hoping for a move to Broadway.

Old Hats (Signature): There’s a lot of angst and sturm und drang Off Broadway, and it can get depressing. What a joy then, to experience an evening of pure delight with three comedic pros (Bill Irwin, David Shiner, and Nellie McKay). Irwin, a Tony Award-winning actor and original member of the Pickle Family Circus, and Shiner, a former street performer who later starred with Cirque du Soleil, have performed together before, in Fool Moon on Broadway. That production won a Tony for Unique Theatrical Experience. The effervescent Nellie McKay serves as Old Hats’ musical director and performs vocals, piano, and ukulele (an instrument in short supply in today’s theater). Irwin and Shine mix it up, alternating old Vaudeville routines with really creative new bits, especially one involving the use of an iPad. So much fun, I smiled throughout the entire performance.

The Explorers Club (Manhattan Theatre Club). Speaking of smiling throughout a performance…here’s what I wrote about The Explorers Club in a previous Shari on the Aisle post:

Written by Nell Benjamin (Tony and Drama Desk-nominated playwright of Legally Blonde), it is an hour and 45 minutes of madcap delight. When you’re not chuckling you will at least have a smile on your face. (If not, sorry—you are a hopeless curmudgeon). The entire cast is top notch, and the incredibly detailed set by Donyale Werle, crammed with clubby details, is practically worth the price of admission. Delightful, silly fun.