Ernest Shackleton Loves Me – Tony Kiser Theatre, New York

Wade McCollum

Wade McCollum and Val Vigoda in Ernest Shackleton Loves Me at Tony Kiser Theatre, New York. Picture: Jeff Carpenter

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me continues at the Tony Kiser Theatre, New York until 11 June.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Val Vigoda is virtually a one-woman band in the exhilarating Off-Broadway musical, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.

Most of the time, she is furiously bowing away on her electric violin, sometimes beating drums or hitting a small keyboard. She also plucks a few notes on a banjo. Furthermore, her music-making is synchronised with electronic loopings and orchestrations for a surprisingly rich wall of sound.

At the same time, Vigoda makes up half of the show’s cast, singing powerfully and portraying a woman named Kat, a composer aiming at museum-type music installations.

As if that weren’t problematic enough when it comes to making a living, Kat is trying to work in her freezing apartment, while her baby boy is asleep in the next room. In a series of phone calls, she learns that the background music she has composed for a video game has been rejected and she will not be paid for it, and then that her musician boyfriend Bruce, the father of her child, has taken up with another lady while touring with a cover band.

But then there’s another call. It’s from Ernest Shackleton, responding to Kat’s desperate entry on an online dating service.

Yes, it’s that Ernest Shackleton, the Anglo-Irish explorer who gained renown for his Antarctic adventures early in the last century. He believes Kat’s music would be the perfect accompaniment to his deeds of derring-do.

The two move onto Skype to talk face to face, and eventually Shackleton finds his way into Kat’s apartment, appropriately making his entrance through her refrigerator.

Once he’s there, Kat becomes totally immersed in Shackleton’s greatest episode, when his ship was wrecked by ice flow, forcing him to journey across frozen terrain and freezing seas to rescue himself and his crew – and in this telling – Kat as well.

As well as setting off some romantic sparks, they find inspiration in each other. When Shackleton goes back to his real life, including his wife and children – exiting as he entered, through the refrigerator – Kat works through her initial anger to return to her composing with a newly fortified sense of self.

As you may have guessed, the book by Joe DiPietro (a prolific playwright known for such shows as Memphis and Nice Work If You Can Get It) is a quirky fantasy.

Just go along for the ride. It’s a wildly entertaining one, thanks to many factors. For one, there’s the score filled with perky ballads, dramatic anthems and spirited renderings of sea chanteys. Vigoda wrote the lyrics, often vividly poetic and niftily joined to the music composed by her frequent collaborator Brendan Milburn.

As for the thespian side of things, Vigoda is totally convincing as a beaten-down soul rising to unsuspected levels of courage and strength. Her violin playing becomes another part of her character.

Wade McCollum’s Shackleton is both delightfully funny and heroic. He puts a comic edge on the explorer’s pomposity and then suddenly deepens the character with intimations of Shakespearean nobility, while delivering his musical numbers with grand panache.

Though his full black beard is always in sight, McCollum nevertheless, with shifts in voice and manner, nicely doubles as well as a snarky video game producer, Kat’s lumpish boyfriend and a blasé stagehand who delivers the pre-show announcements about turning off cell phones and the show’s length – some 90 minutes and no intermission.

The show has earlier played in regional theatres and has come into New York as a wonderfully well-tooled product, enhanced by videos using authentic footage of Shackleton’s journey.

The staging by director Lisa Peterson, along with the production design by Alexander V. Nichols. is highly inventive, from the blustery winds that come roaring out of the refrigerator when its door is opened to the makeshift lifeboat with mast that Shackleton pulls together from a storage case and floor lamp as he and Kat make their perilous journey across an Antarctic Sea.

The adventure, complete with falling snow and swelling music, becomes so enthralling that when it reaches its conclusion with all crew members safe, you may well join in the cheering.

Ron Cohen

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