Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney
Nine years ago McCarter Theatre and Paper Mill Playhouse celebrated their first ever partnership with a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that featured music by Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn of GrooveLily. Since then, the real-life married couple have been creating and performing such hit shows as “Striking 12” and “Sleeping Beauty Wakes,” seen at McCarter in 2011. They have once again returned to New Jersey, this time at George Street Playhouse, with their newest and most imaginative work yet – ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME.
In the two-hander, Vigoda is center stage as Kat, a new mom who has just been fired from her job writing music for video games. She hasn’t slept in 36 hours, her baby has colic, her apartment has no heat, and her unfaithful boyfriend is off touring with a Journey cover band. Wait – don’t stop believin’ just yet! She suddenly starts receiving romantic phone calls from explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose name she fleetingly invokes in her opening number “Sucks.” (Kat has a bit of a potty mouth.) In short order, the intrepid love-struck Shackleton (Wade McCollum) uses her refrigerator as a time machine and vaults headlong into her life. She grabs her electric violin and impulsively joins him on his historic (though ill-fated) journey through time, space, and the frozen Antarctic.
Despite the above attempt at a basic plot synopsis, the whirlwind theatrical experience that comprises ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME gleefully defies description. Are we in Kat’s frigid apartment? Are we aboard Shackleton’s ship in the frozen Tundra? Is Kat dreaming or just storytelling? Thankfully, the bare bones book by New Jersey playwright (and George Street favorite) Joe DiPietro doesn’t waste much time on such inconsequential trivialities. Truthfully, as economically staged by Lisa Peterson, the briskly paced musical fares better without them. The show often feels like a modern version of the one-reel adventure serials of days gone by – the sort in which an eager young heroine is swept into a breath-taking adventure by a dashing explorer. Luckily, history tells us that Shackleton actually brought his trusty banjo along to entertain his crew, so between adventures there’s always time for a hornpipe or a hootenanny. At times the show is sweetly reminiscent of Woody Allen’s 1985 film “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” in which a depression-era housewife played by Mia Farrow finds love and adventure with a fictional explorer who comes down off the movie screen to woo her.
Visually, the show’s 80 intermission-less minutes are a virtual ice storm of evocative images expertly created by production designer Alex Nichols. These include archival film, projections, green screen imaging, Skype technology, as well as some good old fashioned traditional stage craft. If you aren’t already familiar with Vigoda and Milburn’s eclectic sound from their music for GrooveLily, it’s just as difficult to concisely describe as the fantastic plot. Their songs can range from pointedly theatrical to soaringly rhapsodic. “Burned Again,” Vigoda’s show stopping eleven o’clock number (which truthfully occurs around nine fifteen), is the culmination of Kat’s emotional coming-to-grips with the men in her life – along with their many flaws. A quick visit from Ponce de Leon (McCollum again) reminds her that even the legendary Shackleton wasn’t perfect. But the determination she’s learned from his remarkable story just might help her survive the real-life adventures that lie ahead. One thing’s for certain, it’s always remarkable to have theatrical visionaries like Vigoda and Milburn back in the Garden State.
ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME continues through May 17th at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ. For tickets and information, visit www.gsponline.org or call 732.246.7717.