Kat (Valerie Vigoda), the focal character in the musical “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” has heard the best news she’s received in ages. A sampling of adolescent gamers has pronounced her music the element they like best in a prospective video release, “Starblazers.”
Those kids have astute ears. As composed by Vigoda and Brandon Millburn, Kat’s music has sweep, motion, and the muscular energy of raw, visceral rock while boasting sophisticated classical overtones. Kat, and therefore “Shackleton’s” composers, obviously have training and a keen sense of composition to go with a penchant for fun and a will to entertain. Kat talks about giving her teen audience “a ride,” and she does. A laudable, listenable ride!
The lively, pulsating music isn’t all. In Lisa Peterson’s smartly entertaining production of “Shackleton” for New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse, sound designers Kevin Heard and Robertson Witmer, with reverbs, echoes, and other effects, are matched in creativity by production designer Alex Nichols’ arresting videos. As Vigoda whirls around Kat’s high-tech Brooklyn studio, setting this keyboard and that synthesizer on auto-pilot while she steps deftly from drums to a cool-looking electric violin, an upstage center screen visually conveys the miasma that’s on Kat’s mind.
Solid patterns crack like eggs, landscapes form then fade, rockets flash, and solar and other astronomical entities dance by in rhythmic and imagistic companionship to the music. So do pictures of explorers Ernest Shackleton, Juan Ponce de Leon, Christopher Columbus, and others. These adventurous discovers are in Kat’s head, and via Vigoda, Millburn, and book writer Joe DiPietro’s giddy whimsy, Shackleton might change her life.
You see, just as Kat is celebrating the teens’ accolade and contemplating the living she’ll make from future video game scores, her boss calls to say her music might be great, but she’s too difficult to work with, and she’s fired. That call returns Kat to the doldrums, as she considers all the work she won’t be paid for, the boyfriend who left her to go on tour with a Journey cover band, and the often crying infant she has no maternal instincts to take care of.
To deal with at least one of her dilemmas, Kat treats us to a composition, “This Sucks,” which masquerades as a highly confessional, candidly direct ad on a lonely hearts website. As Kat bruits her follies and virtues, she receives some unexpected responses, at first by telephone and later by Skype.
She finds an admirer in Ernest Shackleton, who has embarked with 22 men to sail to Antarctica. He hears Kat’s self-reproaching, universe-blaming, despairing rant across a century and miles of bleak, discouraging landscape, and professes love for the “creature” he envisions with “blue and purple hair that needs a wash.”
“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” then explodes into a lovingly outlandish fantasy that incorporates romance, bombast, adventure, history, and purposeful, premeditated fun that eventually exhilarates with a combination of DiPietro’s wit, Vigoda and Millburn’s escalating songs in several styles, Vigoda and co-star Wade McCollum’s enchanting performances, Nichols’ eclectic collection of visuals, and Peterson’s silvery slick direction.
Wherever you look, artistry on a high level is at work, and not just in the pivotal parts of Peterson’s staging, but in small touches such as the way Nichols’ lighting catches Vigoda’s shadow on a refrigerator, window pane, or other background; the appearance of a cartoon light bulb on the screen when Kat gets a good idea; the use of a floor lamp in a clever makeshift boat to show the way the wind affects a sail; Kat correcting her wayward ex on the pitch for Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”; calling up Shackleton’s Wikipedia page; or the clarity with which documentary slides magnify, enhance, and bring serious urgency to the comically romantic fantasy center stage.
Shackleton, it turns out, is the quintessential optimist and a resourceful pragmatic problem solver. DiPietro and the composers take great advantage of how the explorer, against all obstacles and odds, brings his full crew safely back to London even though they were adrift and without shelter in a frigid waters and terrains for more than 13 months.
Shackleton’s enthusiasm and hope never flag, and his attitude becomes contagious to the object of his affection, Kat. If Shackleton can, with humor and unfaltering spirit, prevail over all hardships Nichols shows us via historic photographs from his expedition, Kat can have no excuse to snivel over her comparatively solvable problems. In Shackleton’s world, if there’s going to be blubber, it will be in the form of life-sustaining food and not self-pitying tears.
Kat is like a Dorothy who needs a guide to take her over the rainbow where beings are happier and dreams have a chance. Shackleton is that guide, his cheerful confidence spreading to his adored pupil along with cognizance that he says no one can remain awake for 36 hours, as Kat has, and keep a clear head. See how cleverly DiPietro goes beyond theatrical magic to explain Kat’s perceptions.
DiPietro’s book is breezy and funny. He endows Shackleton with a measure of pomposity, and McCollum always adds pretentious flamboyance to the announcement of Shackleton’s name.
Vigoda and Millburn, both of GrooveLily fame, wrote a versatile, dynamic, and substantial score that can accommodate sea shanties, lullaby, and lots of Kat’s and Shackleton’s inner dialogues. Lyrics are varied. A song cycle, such as “The Voyage of the Endurance” (about Shackleton’s ship), has narrative passages in which lyrics substitute for dialogue. In other instances, the lyrics sound trite at the beginning of a number but build into imagery and poignancy. And sometimes when you think you’re hearing a routine narrative, a sudden revelation or insight will filter in, and the song takes on more character.
McCollum, who performs here on banjo, is a magnificent Shackleton and has fun twitching his lips and thrusting his groin as Ponce de Leon as well as being a boor as Kat’s ex. Vigoda, performing on several instruments, is a fierce and likable Kat, sympathetic when in the dumps, credible when she takes on Shackleton’s unyielding positivity. Both leads are excellent singers. And musical director Ryan O’Connell is nearby to give robust vitality to the music Kat seems to be playing from recordings.
Nichols makes Kat’s apartment a sparse musician’s pad but dresses up a lot with his visuals and lighting. Chelsea Cook has fun with her designs for Shackleton and de Leon.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, May 17, Tuesday through Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday (May 10 and 17) at 7 p.m., Thursday (April 30 and May 14), Saturday, and Sunday, at 2 p.m. $28 to $70. 732-246-7717 or www.gsponline.org.