Leaving no explorer-themed cliché unturned, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me boldly goes where many, many musicals have gone before, weaving a story of ersatz empowerment out of artistic crisis. The show, which encumbers a pair of insanely talented performers with thankless roles at the center of a human cartoon, patronizes and demeans its audience in its eagerness to be idiosyncratic.
Forty-five is the new 25, or at least that’s what the show wants us to believe. We meet Kat (GrooveLily’s Val Vigoda, a multi-multi-talented one-woman band, and the play’s lyricist) as she is recording a profile video for Cupid’sLeftovers.com; apparently she has only recently realized that (shock!) art isn’t easy. She is a middle-aged new mother and composer whose boyfriend Bruce has deserted her for life on the road with his Journey cover band, the Journey Odyssey, but that is only the beginning of both her troubles and the blunt-force-trauma metaphors.
In a gonzo turn of events that is mercifully never rationalized, Kat receives a response to her profile video from legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton (golden-voiced, rubber-faced Wade McCollum), Skyping from Antarctica circa 1914, who has fallen in love with her and her music. When the video game commission Kat is counting on to raise her professional profile falls through and she discovers that Bruce is cheating on her, she is at rope’s end, until, in a thrillingly scripted, scored and staged moment, Shackleton bursts out of the refrigerator and sweeps her away on his Antarctic adventure.
No one can accuse this musical of lacking the courage of its convictions; it commits to its wacky premise whole hog. The book, by Joe DiPietro (Memphis; I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) foregoes narrative logic with a welcome buoyancy but commits the cardinal sin of showing its hand too early. “This is crazy!” Kat tells Shackleton. “So is being an explorer! Or an artist!” he replies, and the play waives its right to subtext or narrative tension. With no mystery about where this is all headed, the story plods along over a rickety rope bridge of the pop-psychology platitudes that so often pass for profundity in commercial performance. Just a sampling: “Optimism is a form of true moral courage.” “Fear not the adventure of insanity!” “Blind, relentless hope is what brings about miracles.” Oy.
The dialogue is so ripe and the tone so broad that at times the show begins to feel like a parody. (How do we know they’ve been on the journey for two years now? Ernest: “Katherine, we’ve been on this journey for two years now.” How do we know they’ve made it and have reached the whaling station? Ernest: “My love, we have made it. We have reached the whaling station.”) Yet the songs, with music by GrooveLily's Brendan Milburn, are so consistently solemn and grandiloquent that the lack of satirical intent quickly becomes obvious; it really is the ham-fisted theatrical equivalent of the “Hang in There” cat poster it appears to be.
Though unsubtle, the play is occasionally very funny, and McCollum gets all the good lines. In fact, both actors are phenomenal performers, walking uphill in the snow both ways to give the play zing. Vigoda plays an array of instruments, synthesizers and loopers; her first number is a marvel of “How’d she do that?” precision. As always, the evening’s most thrilling moments involve her shredding the electrical violin. If she occasionally loses the battle for attention with the wall of screens upstage, it’s largely the fault of the shrill, one-note role DiPietro has written for her.
McCollum, long and lanky, has the flashier part. It’s much more fun to be Dudley Do-Right than Droopy Dog, so it’s only natural that his singing and acting enjoy the same warm audience response as Vigoda’s musicianship.
The much-touted wall of screens is the production’s biggest draw. Though small potatoes compared to the spiffed-up Broadway staging of Dear Evan Hansen that transferred from Second Stage last season, the projections, designed by Alexander V. Nichols, do provide amusing counterpoint to Lisa Peterson’s ambulatory direction (always a difficulty on the boxy stage), and connect the production to the real Shackleton’s odyssey, incorporating films from his journeys. How do we know it’s actual footage from the expedition? Well, it’s obvious, but, not trusting us enough to connect the dots, a subtitle across the screen reads in large letters: “Actual footage from expedition,” and we’re reminded once again in what low regard Ernest Shackleton Loves Me holds its intrepid audience.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me runs through June 11 the Tony Kiser Theater (305 W. 43rd St., between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, visit ernestshackletonlovesme.com.