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Sound Advice Reviews

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me and Working
Reviews by Rob Lester

Let's consider two recently released cast recordings of shows that have had multiple stage lives. In the case of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, first developed in New York City in 2009 and reborn in various places and returning for a full production Off-Broadway last year. And, while its characters represent musicians and explorers, many professions are musicalized and explored in the older Working. Forty years old, birthed in Chicago, it came to Broadway and TV, and a recent London production's cast has generated a third cast recording.


Broadway Records

As winter's harshness refuses to post a closing notice, neither ice nor nor'easters seem quick to exit, so why not brave the cold to consider songs from a musical set in the frigid zone? No, I'm not speaking of the recently opened Frozen, but a small show with big singing and the big conceit of its plot that is plainly more than implausible, but as invigorating as a brisk walk in brisk weather, followed by hot cocoa and whipped cream by the fireplace, without the pesky wind-chill factor or calories. But it has its own sweetness in its loopy, ludicrous story of Kat, a modern-day woman somehow meeting and being wooed by a long-dead explorer of Antarctica, the titular character of the high-energy Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. Call it oddball, and it surely is, but it's oddly appealing. And, just like our likeable lady is convinced to jump aboard ship and then trudge by foot to explore, then search and rescue, you may find yourself happily going along for the wild ride, too—with minimal resistance. It's worth the bumpy trip, even if the limited color spectrums in the wacky humor and odes to pluck and perseverance may risk redundancy midway.

The audio-only experience of this show is at some disadvantage of not having the dazzle or distraction of on-screen images used in the theatre, including male characters appearing as guys interacting through Skype and, notably, actual footage from the real Shackleton's trips. And we'll have to imagine the playful entrance our navigator makes—through the door of (what else?) a refrigerator—just as Kat is imagining, well, almost everything—the whole interaction between the two that is most of the playing time. And in this two-actor piece, we listeners should duly note what was before theatre audience eyes in the four productions of this show: the dynamic duo play their own instruments throughout the proceedings. Music director Ryan O'Connell is the third musical musketeer, prominent on keyboards, percussion, banjo and programming-based soundscapes.

But there's no mistaking the go-for-broke, unflagging performances and full-throated vocal workouts. There's some heavy winking and nuttiness factor in the swashbuckling state of mind adopted by Wade McCollum as the never-say-die leader of a much-tested crew. As hero, he is a hoot. However, enough zest and zing can still ring through the basic material and the writing craft to "sell" it as involvingly inspiring, or at least charming in its chipperness. But some may find the ship's leader going overboard as one-note cartoon buffoon. I soon gave in and embraced the tone. We get some sense of McCollum's versatility as he is also called on to appear for one singing/acting appearance each as Kat's clod of a husband and the heavily accented explorer Ponce de León.

Actress-singer and vibrant violinist Valerie Vigoda is often on fire here. Her singing is fierce, super-strong on sustained notes without becoming strident or showboating. In numerous spots, she balances the tireless optimism and exaggerated bonhomie of her male counterpart with some down-to-earth attitude moments and reality checks. She aces the timing in the quips and expressions of frustration and disbelief with lyrics she wrote herself. The cast recording also lets us hear some snippets of the cheeky dialogue written by Joe DiPietro. (Sample: As Ponce de León ends his phone call, he casually explains, "I have to go now and discover Florida. Adios.")

Lyricist Vigoda—who wrote the score with composer Brendan Milburn, who also joined her as part of the band Groove Lily—comes up with some nifty language choices, too. (Sample: the alliteration of "So we paddle. We pull/Never slack, never slow" in "Every Hand to the Lifeboats" and with the insight into "Money and Musicians," a score highlight: "Better dirt poor and inspired/ Than all rich and fat and tired.") Occasional false rhymes and overstatement make for a less than stellar achievement in some numbers, but there is also virtue in some crisp simplicity in many spots.

Melodic themes and lyric section reappear within later numbers, such as the literal and metaphorical urge to "sail on!" O'Connell is credited with Vigoda and Milburn as a collaborator on the writing of "Toward Elephant Island" and the complex opening number, "Stop/ Rewind/ Play/ Record" which features the technology of multiple tracks and looping. But it is the loopiness that will be the main attraction for some of us with a soft spot for silliness in songs.


Ghostlight Records

I'm always up for a new take on an old favorite when it comes to cast albums, ever the optimist for the more remarkable revivals, revisions, reimaginings. After all, what's the point of capturing something that is slavishly and methodically a soundalike clone, using similar voice timbres and acting choices, the same orchestrations, and tempos? Imitation can be the sincerest form of redundancy, not the best bang for your cast album buck. Then there are those which have interesting variations, featuring respect-worthy interpretations, but fall short in impact when compared to an earlier version that had raised the bar pretty high with talent, casting, sound quality or other matters. Even when a later version may be a mixed bag, material that has been changed, expanded, or is truly new makes the procurement of "yet another version" tempting—or, as we diehard collectors say, "required." You might say that this Working is working pretty hard—to be different.

These musicalized slices of life, based on actual interviews in Studs Terkel's collection of published profiles with people about their professions, retain some of the pain and pride, but at a premium is the potential for poignancy, for me the key element. Under the direction of Luke Sheppard, the interpretations by some cast members seem to strut where they might more wisely and sympathetically tread gently and with extra care. Recorded live at Southwark Playhouse in London last June (with other recording work done at Abbey Road), this is the third version to be available for purchase.

The London variation boasts two numbers added to the score several years ago by the uber-successful songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda. And, for me, their inclusion is the strongest reason to have a listen and a purchase. At the invitation of the original creative engine Stephen Schwartz (who had written some of the songs and is executive producer of this recording), Miranda came on board to write new material. His own first-job experience at age 14, working at McDonald's behind the counter and his preferred assignment to be sent out on a "Delivery" for customers, is a solid series of snapshots of frustration, drudgery and especially sharp in the contrast of the claustrophobia inside and the freedom of being outdoors, wind in his hair, alone, with the potential of getting a tip on top of minimum wage. Liam Tamne plays the role with relish and welcome humor. He also shares the other Miranda contribution with a vocally radiant Siubhan Harrison; they are two caregivers, he for a senior man struggling with dementia, she for a five-year-old girl. They reflect—individually and then with their voices overlapping—on what was "A Very Good Day" for their charges. Their sensitive, nuanced performances mirror the caring qualities good "companion" employees would need, the thoughtfulness extending to the clear-eyed statement that they, as immigrants, are doing jobs that others don't want to do.

Harrison also does well (with a bit of help from Tamne and company) as the woman stuck with "Millwork" (James Taylor), the tricky assignment of singing about the mind-numbingly "goddam awful boring job" being resigned to toiling with her machine "for the rest of the morning, for the rest of the afternoon, and the rest of my life." The most successful part of this is her references to trying to cope by going somewhere else in her mind, but needing to still do the robotic repetitive physical tasks, reminding me of Julie in Carousel whose friend observes, "When we work in the mill, weavin' at the loom/ You gaze absent-minded at the roof/ And half the time your shuttle gets twisted in the threads..." But we don't see much escape for this woman who has already been deserted by her millworking man, who left her with three children to support.

A common thread in many of the numbers, including "Millwork," is the isolation and loneliness some people feel in their labors. Alas, the decision to take what are first and foremost tales of one person's solitary burden and private thoughts and have other cast members join in works against that. Ironically, the chiming in has the opposite effect of implying that others feel exactly the same way and are there to lend empathetic support and validation, making these delicate laments into power ballads. An individual's unique story becomes cheapened, generic shared experience. The ever-increasing, building, busy and throbbing ensemble singing implies that everyone feels the same way, even if the intention was to have the ensemble serve as witnesses and sympathetic listeners. (The cast totals 12 people.) Calibrated emotion and the power of the pause a solo singer can bring are sacrificed to the detriment of the material on several tracks.

Worse is when characters come off as smug or unpleasant. In two cases, Gillian Bevan comes off as brittle. Anger and pouting replace the required helplessness and despair that a teacher missing the old days with her once-satisfactory old ways, feeling left behind by changing times. In this lament, "Nobody Tells Me How" (Mary Rodgers/ Susan Birkenhead), she seems to be complaining and tough when projecting an old-school schoolteacher's despair and fragility can make this piece a heartbreaker. She has some fun and more success with Stephen Schwartz's showpiece about a waitress who insists that "It's an Art" to do well at her work, but the brashness is overplayed and it becomes hammy. And who thought it was a good idea to take our average "Joe," the retired fireman, and telegraph and exaggerate his every self-convincing justification and have Peter Polycarpou speed things up desperately in Craig Carnelia's detail-specific flurry of activities in the guy's efforts to to keep a busy and varied schedule, as if the audience is getting bored or the band will have to be paid overtime if he doesn't hurry up. It's about life in the slow lane. Who self-defeatingly changed the speed limit?

I don't know which music man here is most responsible for making things noisier and too much too fast too often. It could be music supervisor Alex Parker, main orchestrator Alex Lacamoire, or prominent guitarist in the six-person band, Alex Crawford. Nobody is separately credited for vocal arrangements. Also uncredited is a one-page background on the history of the show in the booklet which doesn't have the lyrics, but has three large production photos of this cast of Working by the aptly named photographer Robert Workman.

As for my own job, the part I don't enjoy is having to be negative and, like other longtime fans of a score given a new treatment—and I've long admired this set of songs—I know both the feeling of hopeful anticipation and of being disappointed. But I also know that part of the job is reminding myself and others that material can be interpreted and directed in many ways—one person's disappointment being another's delight. So, I'll work at appreciating the "glass half full" and working with that.

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