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Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 7, 2017

Wade McCollum and Val Vigoda
Photo by Jeff Carpenter

An exhausted and out-of-work 40-something single mother of an infant son finds her strength and courage in the spirited, romantic, and altogether charming pop and rock musical Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a show opening today at the Tony Kiser Theatre that whisks us through space and time from modern Brooklyn to the Antarctic of a century ago.

With a book by Joe DiPietro, whose credentials include such audience-pleasers as Memphis and The Toxic Avenger, and songs by Brendan Milburn (music) and Val Vigoda (lyrics) of the Indie band GrooveLily, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me stars Ms. Vigoda as Kat, the overworked and under-supported mom. As the show opens, Kat is pretty much at her wit's end. She has been up with the baby for 36 hours, and she has just lost (to a high school student!) what she expected would be a breakthrough job writing John Williams-like music for video games. Meanwhile, the baby's father, in a permanent state of arrested development, has left town to perform in a Journey cover band.

In her sleep-deprived and suggestive state, Kat decides what she needs most in her life right now is a little romance. So she joins a dating site called "Cupid's" and records her intro. Before you know it, she begins to get hits from famous dead explorers, among them Ponce de Leon and Jacques Cousteau. She's not interested, however, until she is contacted by Ernest Shackleton (a delightfully talented Wade McCollum, who plays all of the male roles), the real-life British explorer of the Antarctic who fearlessly kept his team alive for close to two years after their ship was trapped in the ice hundreds of miles from the closest outpost.

The minor fact that Shackleton's exploits occurred in the early part of the 20th century is moot to this fantasy-infused show. Before you know it, Kat and Shackleton are chatting via Skype (we get to see what Kat sees via projections and videos of archival footage of the actual expedition, shown on a large screen behind her). Eventually, Shackleton appears in the flesh at Kat's Brooklyn apartment via (how else?) her refrigerator, and he whisks her off to Antarctica. Although the explorer is a bit of a stuffed shirt ("It is I, Ernest Shackleton" is how he puffily refers to himself throughout the show), Kat learns to admire his courage and determination as he fights against all odds to keep his crew alive.

There is little by way of set design beyond the large video installation and a few props, but imagination and the energetic performances take care of the rest. Musically, the show is filled with thumping songs ranging from pop tunes to sea chanteys to soaring power ballads to a variation on the old music hall favorite, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." Val Vigoda is an exceptionally fine musician, doing stellar work on the electric violin, and Wade McCollum plays a mean banjo as they perform songs with wonderfully uplifting lyrics (Sample: When you think that you're down/Fight as hard as you're worth/And you'll find that you have/All the strength that you need. Corny, perhaps, but the performances are so splendid, that you will find it hard to resist all of the positive energy that pours off the fine co-stars.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Through June 11
Second Stage Theater at the Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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