"Ernest Shackleton Loves Me" is an extremely rare thing in musical theater; a show that is inventive, amusingly fantastical, extremely well-crafted and convincingly significant. This Balagan production, in association with ACT and Seattle Rep is a real gift to Seattle audiences before this show goes on to a much broader life. A two-hander, this story is full of distinctive characters. The physical production is possibly the best use of electronic and video production design that I've seen, mostly because it never feels imposed or contrived, but an integral part of the main character's imagination and creativity. The book by Joe DiPietro is tight and compelling, the music by Brendon Milburn surprisingly varied and effective and the lyrics by Valerie Vigoda both natural and concise.
And about that Valerie Vigoda. She plays Kat, a woman living in a cluttered apartment with all her electronic instruments, her electric violin and her cranky, demanding infant. The father is a ne'er do well who abandoned her to go out on the road with his hopeless rock and roll cover band. She is trying to scrape together a living by writing music for video games, and while that doesn't go especially well, either, it is certainly a fine premise for us to realize her incredible musical talent, her ability to fly through space and time on her melodic invention, and her commitment to exploring creativity in all its danger and excitement.
After thirty-six hours without sleep (tending to that infant) she finds her imagination taking over. The early Twentieth-century Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton arrives from out of her freezer in order to take her with him on his disastrous adventure at the ends of the Earth. Prior to his arrival in person, she has somehow made contact with Shackleton via her computer, and the brilliant, enormous video screen at the back of the stage does a great deal to makes the icy, impossibly isolated trek believable. History becomes as immediate as her delusions, the challenges of that distant event as urgent as her own survival in the contemporary world. One of the great satisfactions of this show is its ability to make its metaphors feel organic and unforced, at the same time they are visceral and inescapable.
Wade McCollum is great as Shackleton, a man who seems to be in almost as much awe of his own magnificence as he is sure that history will someday be. Both Vigoda and McCollum are excellent singers and that emphasizes the central role of this journey as one made of and defined by music. McCollum also plays a ridiculous Ponce de Leon and that useless boyfriend/father who ultimately returns to a world forever changed by Kat's experience. Of course, critical to this drama working is the connection between Kat and Shackleton and both of these performers accomplish that. While Shackleton may be slightly more epic than any real human being, he is also exactly what Kat needs in order to find the heroic in herself. Both actors always feel more real than the worlds they exist in.
I think "Ernest Shackleton Loves Me" is going to have a long and successful life. My only question is how and where other theaters can find actors as multi-talented as these two. What I have no question about is that audiences will find the music exciting and original, the story convincing and surprisingly moving, and the physical production thrilling. This show is a sure cure for anyone who thinks musical theater is stuck in old-fashioned song and dance, glitzy production and sappy sentiment. This is what musical theater is about in our world, in our time, and in our lives.
PHOTO BY: Jeff Carpenter Photography