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Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

"Ah, hauling cargo through a blizzard! What could be more invigorating!"
"No! I can't do this! This is impossible!"
"No, Katherine, no! You can do anything! Even the impossible."
"Where'd you get that from? A bumper sticker?"

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
(L-R) Wade McCollum and Val Vigoda (Photo: Jeff Carpenter)
Just a few hours before I attended a preview performance of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me on May 4, the House of Representatives voted to replace the Affordable Care Act with the American Health Care Act. The two may not seem related: the former is a musical that portrays an unusual love story playing out across time, from the Antarctic to Brooklyn. The latter is a widely unpopular, politically fraught piece of legislation with the potential to take away the health insurance of millions of Americans.

The musical—which features a book by Joe DiPietro, music by Brendan Milburn, and lyrics by Valerie Vigoda (who also co-stars as Kat)—doesn't overtly deal with any political subject matter. Nor is it responding to current events. After five years of development, the show received its first full production in Seattle in 2014, with additional runs in New Jersey and Boston the following year (all directed by Lisa Peterson, who continues with the show New York).

But consider its protagonist: Kat is a single mother constantly being told that her son needs a father. She's a struggling artist, and even when she tries to sell out and do commercial work scoring a video game, she's deemed too old and out of touch.

As an empowered woman, a sound installation artist who could use an NEA grant, and a single mother who probably benefitted from the Affordable Care Act, Kat embodies a multitude of traits that would make her contemptuous to the current administration. And, at a moment like this, that's what makes many of us root for her so hard, even in a show with an outright bizarre premise and occasional rough patches.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me centers on a recreation of the famed explorer's journey to the Antarctic, initiated after Shackleton (Wade McCollum) discovers Kat's profile on a dating website. Finding her music a source of inspiration, Shackleton brings her along to witness his trials and travails on the voyage of the ill-fated Endurance.

The musical makes a compelling case for us not to sweat the iffy mechanics of how Shackleton and Kat first get in touch, but the suggestion that the two of them can lift each other up is less persuasively argued. It's a strange relationship, with Shackleton repetitively heaping the same praise on Kat's music to the point that it starts to feel patronizing, and Kat often falls into the role of the ingénue except when Shackleton needs to be cheered up and pushed forward.

What sells it is the unrelenting charisma of McCollum combined with Vigoda's impressive musicianship. McCollum switches easily and seamlessly between several characters and enlivens each one, even those that are essentially one-liners. He knows how to time a joke for maximum response, and his ability to work the crowd is noteworthy. He quite literally has the audience eating right out of his hands when he shares a ration of seal blubber with several spectators. (I've never seen people so excited about audience participation.)

Vigoda, meanwhile, plays the everyman to McCollum's cool kid, or at least an everyman who can play five or so separate instruments (additional accompaniment comes from Ryan O'Connell, offstage) and has a great voice to boot. She draws upon elements of experimental music, using loops and effects pedals, while operating within the realm of both musical theater and rock. She makes the character feel real and grounded, often in appreciable contrast to the caricatures played by McCollum.

The immersive production design, executed with savvy by Alexander V. Nichols, is so extensive that it almost feels like a third performer. A tiered set, with various tricks that reveal themselves throughout the show, is paired with a striking multimedia backdrop. Integrating live video footage from on and off-stage, archival photographs and videos from Shackleton's expedition, and other graphics, Nichols complements and enhances the action of the show nicely. The live video (used only early on) can feel gimmicky, but the other footage is transporting and serves the show nicely.

The score is spirited and has its share of exhilarating moments, but starts to run out of steam in the latter part of the show when most of the music either reprises or less explicitly, but still noticeably, echoes songs from earlier. The music's swift pacing is matched in Peterson's robust staging. This overall sense of speed helps avoid getting bogged down in any of the technicalities of the story, but it can also lead to some jarring transitions or artificially fast resolutions.

But even if there are a few cracks in the hull, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me certainly fares better than Shackleton's own ship does. It's a show that may at times be a bit too zany for its own good, but it charms thanks to its incredibly appealing (and, yes, earnest) performers and its thoughtful design. Even where it falls short, its message that we should never stop doubting ourselves when the going gets tough—whether that means financial hardship, creative struggles, or battling for survival at the bottom of the world—is one that's sure to resonate with world-weary audiences in need of a good pick-me-up.

Musical Numbers
  • Stop Rewind Play Record (Kat)
  • Phoenix, Arizona (Bruce)
  • O, Katerina (Ernest)
  • We're On Our Way (Ernest, Kat, Brave and Hearty Men)
  • The Morning the Newspaper Advert Appeared (Kat)
  • And Then Shackleton Said (Kat and Ernest)
  • Tipperary (Ernest and Kat)
  • All Right Men, Come and Listen to Me (Ernest and Kat)
  • Adrift on an Icefield (Ernest and Kat)
  • Money and Musicians (and Explorers) (Kat and Ernest)
  • Every Hand to the Lifeboats (Ernest and Kat)
  • The Eye of the Storm (Ernest and Kat)
  • Boat Journey (Ernest and Kat)
  • Climbing South Georgia Island (Kat and Ernest)
  • Toward Elephant Island (Ernest and Kat)
  • Burned Again (Kat)
  • We're On Our Way (Reprise) (Kat)

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Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Book by Joe DiPietro
Music by Brendan Milburn
Lyrics by Val Vigoda
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Cast: Wade McCollum (Ernest Shackleton, others) and Val Vigoda (Kat)
Production Design: Alexander V. Nichols
Costume Design: Chelsea Cook
Sound Design: Rob Kaplowitz
Orchestrations: Ryan O'Connell and Brendan Milburn
Additional Music: Ryan O'Connell
Music Supervisor: Curtis Moore
Music Director: Ryan O'Connell
Production Stage Manager: Lucy Kennedy
Running Time: 1 hours and 30 minutes with no intermission
The Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 W 43rd Street
Tickets: $89-$109; (866) 811-4111,
From 4/14/2017; opened 5/7/2017; closing 6/11/2017
Performance times: Tuesdays at 7 pm; Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm; Sundays at 3 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 5/4/2017 performance

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