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Ernest Shackleton Loves Me — George Street Playhouse

IMG_6816_PRINTEveryone should have an Ernest Shackleton.

As drawn by writer Joe DiPietro and composers Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Millburn in their musical, “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” the Antarctic explorer is the ultimate optimist and life coach. In the throes of the greatest calamity, Shackleton stays calm and practical. His self-possession is infectious. It permeates to the 22 members of his crew, stranded for 13 months on a frozen outpost, and it reaches though a century in time and thousands of miles in distance to affect a Brooklyn composer at wit’s end after hearing her latest chance for success, and financial comfort, has gone kaput.

Wade McCollum enthusiastically embodies the figure DiPietro, Vigoda, and Millburn created as he reverberatingly bellows Shackleton’s name each time he says it, and he says it quite often, in Lisa Peterson’s blockbuster production for New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse. He is a larger-than-life Pollyanna who never encountered a calamity he could not conquer. Shackleton is a man of action, one who has the mental and spiritual resources to think of what’s next instead of dwelling on what has happened. He rescues his men from disaster, and he rescues that Brooklyn lass from doldrums that make her doubt whether she can work or even take care of her infant son whose father abandoned her, without leaving money, to go on tour with a Journey cover band.

“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” is a lively, exuberant fantasy that takes clever advantage of modern technology to bring an imaginary romance to vivid reality. Between the buoyancy of Shackleton’s character, a visit from a rival Juan Ponce de Leon, the easing of the composer’s overwhelming woes, and a clarion call proclaiming “We’re on Our Way,” the authors and Peterson extol what gumption, confidence, and ignoring the odds can do to make life a stirring and positive adventure. While they’re at it, the give the George Street audience and walloping good time.

Adding to the many virtues of this merry and uplifting musical is the never-off-stage-not-for-one-second performance of Valerie Vigoda as Kat. Besides acting the persona she created with aplomb, Vigoda is a one-person orchestra putting multiple preset synthesizers into service for bass, chords, and melody while she augments with other instruments, provides percussion, and straps an electric violin in place to entertain with virtuoso abandon on that handy part of her musical arsenal. Vigoda is adeptly abetted by the unseen Ryan O’Connell, hidden behind the set and revealed at curtain calls, but with her instruments attached to her or at arm’s length, she is quintuple threat, as she can sing, dance, act, compose, and be the band all at the same time.

The visual and musical pyrotechnics are exciting, but “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” works best because of its bracingly exhilarating story. Even the depressed, disappointed, dismissed, dumped on Kat cannot help but be happy in the presence of Shackleton and all he represents. DiPietro and the composers have devised a piece that is fun and vibrant to the point of being effervescent. Even the most absurd aspects of “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me’ work. DiPietro and company are also shrewd enough to let reality encroach, as in the return of the Journey-mimicking boyfriend (whose pitch Kat has to correct when he sings some bars of “Don’t Stop Believin’!?!) or the prospect that Kat is genuinely unsure about how to tend to her child. It means Kat will have some work to do when Shackleton recedes back to his time and place. In the spirit of the musical, we have to believe the lessons from Shackleton have paid off.

Peterson and various designers contribute mightily to the success of “Shackleton.” Alex Nichols’s basic set looks like a typical musician’s loft/studio. Laptops and keyboard dominate a industrial work table stage center while an electronic drum kit, able to go from kettle to cymbal sits to the table’s left and Vigoda’s magical violin resides on its hook soon to be accompanied by an acoustic banjo, down right. Kat’s living space may be stark and bleak with nary a comfortable chair to be found, but the “Shackleton” set is constantly brightened by Nichols’s projections and closed circuit offerings on a big screen that is divided into squares (although it usually show an entire picture) and takes up the entire upstage center. On this screen, Peterson orders a world that ranges from visions from Kat’s mental wanderings, graphics from a video game she’s written the music for, images of Shackleton, de Leon and other explorer, and most tellingly, documentary photographs and other footage from Shackleton’s aborted but fateful 1913 voyage to Antarctica.

In addition to its innate vitality, the various visual elements Nichols provides turns “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” into a eye-catching parade that is matched aurally by the expansive gamut of Vigoda and Millburn’s music, which includes everything from sea chanties and folk melodies to drivingly insistent rock riffs. One of my favorite cartoonlike cues is a light bulb that appears when Kat gets a good idea.

“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” begins on a day that should be auspicious for Kat. Although she aspires to write opera and contemporary works for orchestras, she needs to take a freelancer’s attitude and accept all the work she can get. This includes writing the score heard behind video games adolescents play in droves.

Kat is sort of the Paganini of the X-Box. On the day we meet her, a group of teenagers enlisted for a beta consumer study, voted her music their favorite aspect of a game called “Starblazers.” One can hear why. As Kat plays it, you see how she blend classical constructions with rock sounds, as if “Thus Spake Zarathustra” was conceived first by Greg Lake. Under Kat’s music, cosmic images play. They include photos of Shackleton, de Leon, Christopher Columbus, and others who headed for where few men ventured before. As kids play “Starblazers,” they will have a phantasmagoria of sound and graphic to entertain but not distract them. Kat is also proud that “Starblazers” doesn’t involve a lot of violence. For the first time since her boyfriend went Journey-ward, she feels fulfilled and secure.

NealBoxHer euphoria is short-lived. Just as she’s celebrating the favorable market research report, her boss at the video company calls and tells her he going with another composer’s score. When she but-but-buts, the producer explains it isn’t Kat’s music he doesn’t like. It’s she. He says Kat’s hard to work with and misses meetings and deadline. Other people are single and have infants, he retorts when Kat mentions her son.

The windfall she envisioned out the window — The producer only pays if a score is accepted. — Kat is ready to embrace despair. She goes back to her keyboard, synthesizers, computers, and violin. Visuals that show her mind being torn asunder accompany her musical rant that declares “This Sucks.” This particular tantrum is actually part of an angry mocking ad Kat plans to post on an Internet dating site. Even after she gets carried away and says disparaging things about herself, and about the men she’s encountered in the dating world, she sends the ad. What the heck? Let the world know how you feel. If everything sucks, get it off your chest so you can move forward.

Surprisingly, before Kat finishes her diatribe, she gets an answer. Two answers. One, the first, is from Ernest Shackleton, who announces his name in the vocal equivalent of capital letters with an exclamation point, ERNEST SHACKLETON!!! Sounding a bit like a radio announcer or a contender at a Tony the Tiger audition, Shackleton intones in deep bass how he is attracted to Kat and wants to have an affair with her.

Never mind that’s he married, that he died before Kat was born, and that he is allegedly calling from landing distance of the Antarctic, Shackleton is palpable, real, and in the mood for love.

Kat is nonplussed. How can this be? Ernest Shackleton on the telephone? Ernest Shackleton asking if Kat has Skype so they can see each other as they commune? Ernest Shackleton, appearing on the large screen in Kat’s apartment and then entering that domicile from her refrigerator, frost coming from the ice box and snow beginning to fall in her apartment?

Yes, ERNEST SHACKLETON!!! Is there and abundantly present, boots, insulated polar camouflage suit and all.

McCollum has already used his smile and boyish looks, far different from the actual Shackleton’s, to dazzle. As he enters Kat’s studio, he is more than a force, he’s an irrepressible vessel of cheer. Hope springs from him. Although his expedition is stymied by ice so thick ad stubborn it can’t be broken by his ship’s special cutters, and he and his crew have to wait somewhere in the Pacific until spring comes and softens the ice, he is all exuberance and magnanimity. He tells Kat not to despair. He also tells her to soothe her baby when he cries, to nurture the child instead of resenting him.

While Shackleton woos Kat, the troubles aboard his ship, The Endurance, increase exponentially. The vessel gets caught, irremedially, in an ice bank. His men are forced to abandon it and take to the frigid waters on life rafts. Water and provisions are low. Whale blubber becomes the sustaining staple. Storms and other natural occurrences threaten to scuttle the flimsy life crafts and subject Shackleton’s men to excruciating hypothermia before they succumb to a death that might be a relief after their discomfort and pain.

Time and time again, Shackleton finds a solution to the latest catastrophe to befall him and his men. “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” becomes a creative musical chronicle of Shackelton’s conundrums and triumphs. We, the George Street audience, wait in suspense as each ordeal comes and is dealt with via a combination of wit, resourcefulness, and luck.

As Shackleton goes through his torments, he see how optimistic and even-handed he remained. He never believes he cannot conceive of a way to get around his latest boondoggle, too light a word for men being trapped on a remote island with the flimsiest of shelter and a paucity of food as he labors to get to a whaling camp on the other side of a steep mountain to get the provisions, medicine, and warm clothes that may save them.

Nothing Kat faces in any way comes near the magnitude of Shackleton’s dilemmas. Yet the explorer considers his possibilities and act with the most prudence. In the end of his adventure, four years in duration, we sit with bated breath as Shackleton counts the men coming to greet the ship from the whaling stations, the ship that will provide much needed solace and relief, in addition to being a conveyance home to England.

We may know the outcome of the Endurance story. Posters throughout George Street and notes in the “Shackleton” program tell us the story, but it is engrossing to see it unfold on the George Street stage in the context of a musical showing an improbable romance that makes out spirits soar as high as Kat’s.

Remember that Nichols has peppered the large upstage screen with photographed scenes from Shackleton’s voyage. We see the wreckage of The Endurance, the life boats his men board for safety, the stark island on which they must roost, and the conditions in which they must live. It is all so harrowing, yet Shackleton never loses confidence he and his human faculties will prevail over nature and hardship. It’s all quite stirring.

As Shackleton’s saga unfold, various genres of music are employed in a song cycle that recounts the perilous, heroic story. You get excited seeing the obstacles that were conquered. And you get to sigh and say, “Awwww” as shots of penguins are intermingled with picture of Shackleton’s men.

DiPietro, Vigoda, and Millburn never stop joking. When Ernest Shackleton must return to his reality, which includes a wife in England, Ponce de Leon show up for his chance with Kat.

Someone else shows up, Kat’s deadbeat boyfriend who can’t cut it among the Journey folk. Kat wasn’t too high on this jerk when “Shackleton” began. Now that she’s experienced the amazing Shackleton, she is ready to show the H-Journeyman the door.

Kat is transformed, and for all of its far-fetched fantasy, one cannot see how she could be anything else. We also latch on to a feeling of hope and optimism.

Wade McCollum is amazing as he goes through several parts as the men in Kat’s life. His Shackleton is an amalgam of attractiveness, vigor, ingenuity, and positive thinking. His Ponce de Leon is confused about why Kat would not prefer an Iberian lover over an Anglo-Irish one, especially since he offers her eternal youth. His wastrel of a boyfriend conveys all aspects of slackerdom and hints at a guy who’d rather be a gigolo or albatross than a partner.

Best of all, McCollum captures the verve of Shackleton. Never is heard a discouraging word with Sir Ernest around. All revolves around assessing a problem, determining a solution, and achieving that end, especially when nothing you do can worsen a situation.

The actor is a master of expression. He can twitch his lip in a fetching, come hither way, smile with conviction he is the handsomest, most virile beast extant, dance with aplomb, and play the banjo delightfully.

Valerie Vigoda is more than a whirlwind with a bow, keyboard, and synthesizer options, talent we’re familiar with from Millburn’s and her work with GrooveLily. Appearing with her blue and purple hair Shackleton notes in his first communication, with the added fact that it looks unwashed, Vigoda is the picture of a modern artist who works in contemporary form. Of course, Kat is skeptical when Shackleton appears, but she responds to his sincerity, his charm, and his example to shrug off your difficulties and think assiduously about how to solve a mess and move on to the next adventure with optimism.

Kat is significantly changed by her encounter with Shackleton, and we are too. Vigoda expresses that transition well, as she portrays Kat’s panoply emotions, sings with gusto, and entertains thoroughly.

A production like Peterson’s could not begin to work if not for the extraordinary sound design of Kevin Heard and Robinson Wilmer. Their contribution is extraordinary, especially as Vigoda plots lots of mike tricks that involve echoes, reverbs, targeted amplification, and other all kinds of machinations that would require a shrewd sound designer to render.

Peterson’s impressively lively production enhances a good story and creates a visual context in which Vigoda and Millburn’s music can thrive. “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” grows escalates in joyousness as the show progresses. DiPietro’s book is witty and contains a lot of good jokes including some bombast for Shackleton and some self-effacement for Kat. Attending “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” invigorates. It’s a shame this animated, inspirational production has such a limited run.

“Ernest Shacketon Loves Me” runs through Sunday, May 17 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, in New Brunswick, N.J. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday (May 10 and 17), and 2 p.m. Thursday (May 14), Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $70 to $28 and can be obtained by calling 732-246-7717 or by visiting www.gsponline.org.

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