Meet Kat — a thirtysomething living in Brooklyn, recently abandoned by her new baby's father, and just fired from her job as a videogame composer. Kat could really use a pick-me-up, and in an attempt to get her life back on track, she signs up for a dating website. Her profile video yields a message from Ernest Shackleton, the famous explorer who died 95 years earlier. Who then makes his way into her kitchen. Through the fridge.
Kat (Val Vigoda) is at her wit's end when the new 85-minute musical Ernest Shackleton Loves Me begins. Her boyfriend skipped town to travel with a Journey cover band, and she's been awake for 36 hours in her freezing-cold apartment. So, Kat, a struggling musician, posts a profile video of herself on the website Cupid's Leftovers. That's where Shackleton (Wade McCollum) discovers her, and the inspiring music that she creates. He's about to embark on his journey to become the first man to cross Antarctica. If only there was a way to do it together.
There are two subjects at the heart of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. The first is a fairly traditional bio-musical of this largely forgotten explorer, particularly focusing on a brutal two-year episode on a ship called The Endurance. After the ship get trapped in ice and later sinks, Shackleton must beat the odds to get all of his men rescued alive.
The second is how this example of Shackleton's heroism — and blind optimism, really — manages to change the life of a down-on-her-luck artist. As Kat and Shackleton grow closer over the course of this single night, she learns that she has the strength to carry on in the face of her own travails, something that she never actually expected.
As far as premises go, this one is pretty out-there. And Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, with a score by Val Vigoda and Brendan Milburn of the band GrooveLily, and a book by Joe DiPietro, is a pretty wild ride. Under the direction of Lisa Peterson, this New York premiere at the Tony Kiser Theater (home to Second Stage) proudly waves its freak flag, and, perhaps taking a clue from the adventures of the title character, boldly dares to risk its life in the admirable search for innovation.
Vigoda begins the show with a terrific opening number that is created entirely through live looping techniques (when she lays down tracks, loops them, and records over them). A good portion of the score is presented in this manner, created both onstage and off (musical director Ryan O'Connell playing a variety of instruments). It's a significantly different technique than what is traditionally expected of musical theater, and it pays off. The production design, by Alexander V. Nichols, provides similar originality. Much of the set is made up of screens, where multimedia installations largely culled from actual videos from Shackleton's adventures spring to life. It's beautiful to look at.
While Vigoda and McCollum don't have much romantic chemistry, they're both delightfully quirky performers who really know how to sell the material. Vigoda's perfectly prickly work is enhanced by her mean skills at the electric violin. McCollum infuses Shackleton with a great deal of dry humor. Peterson's direction guides them both into larger-than-life performances that, remarkably, are down-to-earth at the same time.
When Vigoda and McCollum wrap their strong voices around the booming pop ballads sprinkled throughout, we too get the feeling we are watching a pair of performers chart some new theatrical territory.
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