Knowingly quirky productions skate a dangerously thin line between being delightfully eccentric or just flat-out weird. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a new two-actor musical boasting a frisky electronic score, ties together fiction and incredible real-life history with an eminently bizarre concept — but one that ends up working rather nicely, thanks to smart writing, staging, and design. The era-mashing story involves a fantastical romance between Kat (Val Vigoda), a hipster composer and single mom of today, and Ernest Shackleton (Wade McCollum), the legendary British polar explorer of a century ago. Despairing of her life in a freezing-cold Brooklyn apartment, Kat storms up an impassioned song on her keyboard synthesizer. Her cri de coeur magically crosses through time and space to hook her up with Shackleton, who materializes through Skype from the deck of his ship Endurance, as he embarks upon a perilous expedition to Antarctica in 1914.
Kat, who has not slept in 36 hours, wonders if she might be hallucinating, but the audience knows better: We can see Shackleton projected, via a vast video screen, across the rear wall of her apartment. The shabby abode is rendered onstage as an abstract environment banked by snow; these frosty visuals induce viewers to suspend disbelief and come along for the wild ride. Herself duly intrigued by the astonishing turn of events and Shackleton’s gung-ho spirit — “So is being an explorer! Or an artist!” he responds to Kat’s “This is crazy!” — Kat grabs her electric violin and joins him for a series of chantey-style songs that detail the slow crushing of the stranded Endurance by polar ice. Projections of actual photos and films taken by Shackleton’s crew further document the wreck.
As Kat bemoans the impending disaster, out of her refrigerator bounds the laws-of-physics-defying Shackleton, gleaming with frost and characteristic optimism. Banjo in hand, he sweeps Kat into the Antarctic wilderness, taking her on the impossible journey of survival that forged the real-life explorer’s heroic reputation. Trekking across raging seas and icy mountains, Kat becomes inspired to vanquish her own personal doubts. “When you think that you’re down, fight for all that you’re worth, and you’ll find that you have all the strength you need,” the pair sing.
It’s a nice message, but some people might still be questioning the underlying reason for fusing a grueling fact-based adventure tale with a chipper fictional romance. But thanks to the expertise of its inventive makers and performers, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me proves an enjoyable bite-size epic, zipping along for ninety minutes on a good-humored script by Joe DiPietro (known for conventional tuners like Memphis); a lively, melodic score by Brendan Milburn that rollicks between folk and pop modes; and direction from Lisa Peterson that makes dynamic use of the skeletal Alexander V. Nichols–designed set, whose multimedia images are tinted with chilly blues. Vigoda, who crafted the tidy lyrics and plays a scorching fiddle, invests Kat with a winning energy, and McCollum, an especially fine vocalist, cuts a charismatic figure as the courageous Shackleton. Together, their blazing performances melt away any doubts about the show’s potentially dubious concept.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd Street
Through June 11