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/

QUICK TAKES: 4 SHOWS TO SEE RIGHT NOW

Every Brilliant Thing

Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing

In my two most recent posts I’ve presented a sneak peak at some Broadway plays and musicals that are on the horizon. While we’re waiting for Spring to arrive—both inside and outside the theatre—here are four terrific plays, (2 on Broadway and 2 off Broadway) that are currently playing and are highly recommended. Go see them now, before they’re gone.

Every Brilliant Thing. Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St.

This is a show with a simple message: Life, despite its challenges and disappointments, is a beautiful thing, if you just take the time to notice the small joys all around you. British actor/writer/comedian Jonny Donahoe stars as a man who, as a young boy and continuing throughout his life, creates a list of “every brilliant thing” in the world to convince his suicidal mother to keep on living. Sounds depressing, right? It is anything but. The show is both inspiring and fun, as Donahoe (who also co-wrote with Duncan Macmillan) enlists the participation of the audience in enumerating life’s small pleasures. He hands out numbered slips of paper before the show begins, asking audience members to read each paper aloud when he mentions its number. For example: 1. Ice cream, 2. Water fights, 3. Things with stripes, 4. Christopher Walken’s voice. As the boy matures into a man, the brilliant things evolve into more adult choices: Starting a new book; Falling in love. At 65 minutes with no intermission, the show is a short, sweet, and thoroughly satisfying brilliant thing, well worth the trip down to Barrow Street.

Every Brilliant Thing continues through March 29.

Disgraced. Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

The mise en scene in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a familiar one: the dinner party. Amir, an up-and-coming attorney, and his artist wife Emily are hosts to Emily’s art dealer, Isaac and his wife Jory, a colleague at Amir’s law firm. They are of diverse ethnic backgrounds: Amir is a lapsed (some might say, self-loathing) Muslim, Isaac is Jewish, and Jory is African American. It’s been said that to keep the peace at social gatherings, two potential powder keg topics should be avoided: politics and religion. Unfortunately for Amir (but fortunately for the dramatic tension of the play), the play’s characters ignore that advice—and by the end of the evening, no one emerges unscathed. This is a thought-provoking, engaging evening at the theatre that will provide ample material for your own post-theatre dinner conversation.

Read the complete Shari on the Aisle review.

Disgraced continues through March 1.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.

Olivier Award-winning British playwright Simon Stephens has adapted Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel about an autistic boy’s investigation into the murder of a neighborhood dog into an incredibly moving and dazzling work of theatre. What makes the play so remarkable is how, through innovative stagecraft that includes grid-like projections, lighting, and audio, we experience what it’s like to be Christopher, the play’s young protagonist. We feel the almost unbearable pain of sensory overload that afflicts an autistic child. The brilliant staging, along with a remarkable performance by Alex Sharp (a recent Julliard grad wowing audiences in his Broadway debut) in the lead role, creates a theatrical experience that is incredibly moving and unique. Sharp, along with the play, are sure to be on the list of 2014/15 Tony nominees.

Performances of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are ongoing.

Between Riverside and Crazy. Second Stage, Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.

On the surface, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy looks like another play about a dysfunctional family. Pops (veteran actor Stephen McKinley Henderson) is a 60-something cop who was shot while off duty a few years back. A recent widower, he shares his rent controlled Riverside Drive apartment with an assortment of younger, troubled characters—all of whom call him Pops or Dad (whether related to him or not). His son Junior, fresh from jail, is selling hot merchandise out of his bedroom. Junior’s friend Oswaldo is struggling to stay clean. And Junior’s girlfriend announces she’s pregnant. Pops, who refuses to settle his lawsuit against the NYPD, may lose the apartment. But look beneath the surface, and nothing is as it seems. The ensemble, especially Henderson, does a fine job in this restaging of an Atlantic Theatre production.

Between Riverside and Crazy continues through March 22.

Curious Incident

With Curious Incident’s Alex Sharp

For ticket information on all of these shows, check out the show’s websites, playbill.com, TKTS, and Broadway Helper.com

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.

Little Miss Sunshine

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Second Stage Theatre, 12-10-13

This high-quality new production is a quirky musical based on the quirky 2006 hit film written by Michael Arndt.

Director and Book: James Lapine

Music and Lyrics: William Finn

Lead Cast: Stephanie J. Block, Will Swenson, Rory O’Malley, David Rasche, Hannah Nordberg, Logan Rowland

Shari on the Aisle Rating: * * * *

Plot: When sweet Olive Hoover receives a last-minute invitation to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, her entire dysfunctional family piles into Grandpa’s old VW van to make the trip from Arizona to California. This isn’t your garden-variety dysfunctional family: Grandpa snorts coke, gay Uncle Frank just tried to off himself, brother Dwayne is obsessed with Nietzsche and hasn’t spoken for nearly three months, and not surprisingly, Mom and Dad’s marriage could self-destruct at any moment.

Will they arrive at the pageant in time? Will Dwayne speak again? Will Olive win? Can this family be saved? The answers to three of these four questions is “yes”. The show closely follows the film’s plot, so if you’ve seen it, you already know which is which.

Bottom Line: This is a top-drawer off-Broadway production, filled with Broadway stars: Block and Swenson have multiple Tony/Drama Desk/Drama League noms; theatre-geek favorite O’Malley was Tony-nominated for his unforgettable “Turn It Off” performance in The Book of Mormon; Rasche is a seasoned Broadway/TV/film pro. James Lapine’s (book and director) credits include The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, Sunday in the Park with George, and many more. William Finn (music and lyrics) won two Tonys for Falsettos (Best Book of a Musical, with Lapine, and Best Original Score).

The opening number, “The Way of the World,” is basically an ode to failure. It’s funny and sad, and sets the tone for the rest of the 100-minute show. Everything about the production is top notch, much of it resting on the slender shoulders of nine-year-old Hannah Nordberg as Olive. (The bespectacled pint-sized actress wears some padding on her tummy and rear end for the role). She brings down the house when she shakes her “ba-donk-a-donk” in the Little Miss Sunshine talent competition. Nordberg’s Hannah is so exuberant, loving, sweet, and sincere that you root for her and her family to persevere and overcome their multiple issues.

Should You See It? Sorry, but it’s probably too late. Little Miss Sunshine is about to end its run at Second Stage. However, don’t despair. Given its illustrious pedigree and winning book and score, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns up on Broadway. I hope it does, so that many more people will have an opportunity to cheer Olive and her ba-donk-a-donk. Stay tuned.