BWW Reviews: Balagan's ERNEST SHACKLETON Has Come to Rescue Us from the Ordinary
It's not based on a book or a movie or (God forbid) a TV show. It isn't the dusted off classics from some forgotten pop icon. What Balagan Theatre has brought us with the world premiere of "Ernest Shackleton Loves Me" is a quirky, fresh and completely original new musical and one of the most exciting things I've seen in musical theater in years. It's the whole package!
Now, if you're sitting there, Dear Readers, asking yourself (or about to Google) "who is Ernest Shackleton", let me save you the keystrokes. Ernest Shackleton was the famed Antarctic explorer whose 1914 expedition got trapped in the ice with little hope of survival. But this show is no period piece as authors Joe DiPietro, Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda have added into the Shackleton journey a new twist. Meet Kat (Vigoda), a present day single mother and video game composer who's been up for 36 hours with a colicky baby and in the depths of her fatigue and despair receives a mysterious and technologically impossible Skype call from long dead explorer Ernest Shackleton (Wade McCollum). What follows is an exhilarating and heartfelt journey as Kat travels with Ernest on his quest to survive the Antarctic, rescue his men and find land.
If that story isn't fresh enough for you, add in a completely stunning new score with varied musical styles that is created right on stage. Vigoda and McCollum with the aid of music director Ryan O'Connell deliver the spectacular score with the use of keyboard and drum machines, sound loopers, electric violins and one gorgeous banjo as we watch. It's truly an amazing spectacle as Vigoda particularly switches from one instrument to the next with the agility of an acrobat all the while still singing and telling the story. And even though there are so many different kinds of music throughout (pop, rock, musical theatre, video games, sea chanteys) the brilliant score from Milburn manages to keep a common through line through all of them and makes sure they're all coming from the same show.
OK, so a stunning score and story. Check! And we haven't even really gotten to the cast yet. But before we do there's still another element of genius to be called out. Not only has director Lisa Peterson crafted this finely flowing story with a perfect ebb and flow of humor and emotion but there's the technical aspect as well. Production designer Alexander V. Nichols along with Assistant designer and projection creator Ahren Buhmann have created a sparse world of Kat's apartment that evolves into the frozen tundra and majestic voyage with the use of some incredible graphics. And I cannot overlook the exceptionally beautiful costumes from Chelsea Cook which only add to the magical world that's been created.
And that cast. There are only two of them but Vigoda and McCollum have the talent and presence of an entire Broadway show AND orchestra. Beyond Vigoda's mastery of the live music she's creating her arc for Kat from exhausted and frustrated mother and musician to explorer to force of nature is exceptional. Add into that her gorgeous voice and you'll see that Vigoda's is truly a tour de force performance. And then there's McCollum as he leaps in and out of several characters, both verbally and physically. It's easy to forget that they're all just him. And his main character of Shackleton is everything you want a dashing hero to be. Stalwart and optimistic, funny and heartfelt, McCollum brings it all to the stage. It's actually a good thing there are only two of them up there since I was already having issues as to which shining star I was watching. Anyone else up there would be lost in the glow.
I really cannot stress this enough, Dear Readers. This is a journey you must take. Not only are we talking a world premiere musical that you can say you saw first before it hit big in New York but it's just that good as well. With my three letter rating system there is no choice but to give it a resounding WOW and in case you've forgotten (since there hasn't been one of these in awhile) that means this is a can't miss. No, seriously, DO NOT MISS THIS ONE! You have been warned.