Review: ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME at Porchlight Music Theatre

This quirky but conventionally structured Chicago premiere musical runs through June 1, 2023

By: May. 17, 2023
Review: ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME at Porchlight Music Theatre

I didn't think I'd ever see a singing Antarctic explorer in a musical, but that's exactly what ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME delivers. This quirky but conventionally structured two-hander introduces audiences to Kat, a struggling experimental musician with a newborn baby and a deadbeat, absent boyfriend who's on tour with a Journey cover band, and the eponymous Ernest Shackleton.

Joe DiPietro's book brings Kat and Ernest Shackleton together in a strange but relatable way: In a fit of desperation, Kat records a last-ditch attempt at a video profile on a dating app...and, somehow, it's Ernest Shackleton that answers the call. With lyrics by Val Vigoda and Brendan Milburn, ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME has a sound much like many of its musical theater contemporaries-but with a unique infusion of electric violin (Eric Svejcar Music directs for Porchlight, with orchestrations and additional music by Ryan O'Connell). Kat's musical creations also have her channeling an energy much like Mark in RENT Although sonically the musicals aren't similar, Kat has a documentarian approach to her character storytelling. It's fitting for when she comes across the intrepid explorer Ernest Shackleton himself.

Delightfully, Andrew Mueller's performance as Ernest Shackleton, is indeed, earnest. He's an indisputable star. The role is outrageous so it absolutely requires Mueller to commit to the bit...and he fully does. The way in which Ernest Shackleton enters Kat's sparse Brooklyn apartment on Scott Davis's set is also a terrific feat of theater magic. I don't want to spoil it, but it's an inspired choice. The icicles in Mueller's beard are also a nice touch (Karlika Clayborne is the hair and makeup supervisor), and his explorer garb feels very early twentieth century (costumes by Gregory Graham).

Mueller's a consummate performer; he's funny, and his vocals are spot on. While Mueller has a traditional musical theater sound to his vocals, Elisa Carlson has a unique mix of belt and rasp as Kat. Carlson's gravelly tone has echoes of Miley Cyrus, and it contrasts nicely with Mueller's voice on their duets. While DiPietro's book is also full of clever jokes that hit well, Vigoda's lyrics are more predictable (song titles include "Money and Musicians" and "Eye of the Storm.") In that sense, some of the musical numbers aren't exactly inspired, but the book and songs fit seamlessly together. And even when the lyrics feel achingly obvious, Carlson and Mueller milk the material for all it's worth.

ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME has a truly original concept, even if the plotting doesn't always match the originality of said concept (the ending, in particular, is too tidy). The show could dig deeper into the exploration of Kat's experience as a single mother and some of her, frankly, questionable career choices. But the material for Ernest Shackleton's character is unique, funny, and fully developed. I ultimately found the depiction of Shackleton to be more interesting, but Kat's modern-day character is a necessary contrast to set up the fish-out-of-water dynamic. Just as Shackleton is out of place in modern life, so, too, does Kat feel adrift in her life. The parallel is neat, but it works. And the power of human connection and inspiration that brings Shackleton and Kat together feels honest. ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME takes the concept of a musical theater journey literally as Shackleton and Kat embark on their onstage adventure.

Porchlight Music Theatre's ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME plays at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn, through June 1, 2023.

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

Review by Rachel Weinberg