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BWW Review: ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME: High Tech Musical Adventure

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Presented with special arrangement by Matthew Kwatinetz; Lyrics by Valerie Vigoda, Music by Brendan Milburn, Book by Joe DiPietro; Director, Lisa Peterson; Associate Director, Jaki Bradley; Technical Director, Ahren Busman; Scenic, Lighting, & Projection Designer, Alex Nichols; Costume Designer, Chelsea Cook; Sound Designer, Kevin Heard; Co-sound Designer, Rob Witmer; Associate Sound Designer, John Emmett O'Brien; Stage Manager, Tom Clewell; Composers, Ryan O'Connell and Brendan Milburn; Music Director, Orchestrations, Incidental Music, Ryan O'Connell

CAST: Valerie Vigoda, Wade McCollum

Performances through October 4 presented by ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage, Emerson/Paramount Center MainStage, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-824-8400 or www.artsemerson.org

ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage opens its sixth season with Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a time-traveling musical adventure that takes a modern-day woman out of her Brooklyn apartment and way out of her comfort zone to join the polar explorer on his harrowing expedition a century ago. Thanks to the synergistic scenic, lighting, and projection design work of Alex Nichols, the two are brought together on stage and screen, each supporting the other to persevere through a series of life-altering events.

Valerie Vigoda plays Kat, a sleep-deprived single mother who has just been fired from her day job as a video game music composer. An artist and musician, Kat divides her time between her keyboard and electric violin, and periodically checks in with an online dating website. It comes as a shock when she is contacted by Ernest Shackleton (Wade McCollum) who is inspired by her music. At first, he is a giant head on a projection screen, but finds a way to enter her world (through the refrigerator!) to rescue her from her loneliness and take her with him to the Antarctic.

Shackleton was a renowned explorer who led three British expeditions, but he is perhaps best known for the third one when his ship became trapped in ice and crushed. Forced to abandon the wreck, the crew camped on ice floes and eventually escaped by lifeboats to an island to hunker down. Their leader and a small contingent took an open boat some 720 nautical miles to a whaling station to get help. When he returned more than four months later, Shackleton was able to rescue his entire crew of 22 men.

Book writer Joe DiPietro has fun turning Shackleton into a larger-than-life figure, who frequently refers to himself in the third person as "Ernest Shackleton," and McCollum plays him brashly with a twinkle in his eye. Yet, as much as he seems rather full of himself, he is staunchly dedicated to his men and his mission, struggling heroically to reach his destination. He shows his softer side when Shackleton and Kat find themselves falling in love, and he helps her discover her inner strength as they complete the arduous trek together. Vigoda shows the many facets of her character as Kat journeys from her lowest point through an emotional rebuilding process until she discovers her own power.

The action is highlighted and moved forward by songs (music by Brendan Milburn, lyrics by Vigoda) that showcase the actors' considerable virtuosity, both vocally and on their instruments. Knowing the outcome of Shackleton's expedition diminishes the drama, but the manner of telling the story does allow for some tension, and Vigoda and McCollum are both extremely engaging. Under the direction of Lisa Peterson, the technological elements amplify the inherent theatricality of the surreal nature of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, and she never lets the humanity of the characters take a back seat to all of the bells and whistles. Ultimately, its inspirational messages come through loud and clear.

Photo credit: Jeff Carpenter (Wade McCollum, Valerie Vigoda)


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