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/