Tuesday, April 22, 2014

See "Shackleton" first, before NYC gets ahold of it

Valerie Vigoda and Wade McCollum (photo by Jeff Carpenter)
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me
Through May 3

A hallucinating new mother/musician conjures explorer Ernest Shackleton via Skype to help her weather the winter storms of her failed relationship and her disappearing job in Balagan’s newest show. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (in a co-production with both Seattle Repertory Theatre and ACT Theatre) is a tour de force performance from both of its two stars!

ESLM is well worth a visit. It’s a dense sound-and-light, rocking, lyrical extravaganza, with a bit of hootenanny thrown in.

Valerie Vigoda is both the lyric writer (book by Joe DiPietro and music by Brendan Milburn) and the hallucinating musician who creates the music right in front of us through the use of automated keyboards, sound looping, playback, an electric violin, and even an old reel-to-reel tape recorder! Vigoda is a wonder as we watch her swiftly and deliberately latch on her violin and flip switches and sing! She has a gorgeous voice, too.

Perhaps because she does so much already, it is a lot to ask that she also emote effectively in this frantic realm of creation. In that, she is over-shadowed by her partner, Wade McCollum, though he has far fewer aspects to manage, besides mostly being charming, as Ernest Shackleton, silly as Ponce de Leon, and occasionally playing the banjo.

If you saw Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, here a couple of months ago, you’ll know already that McCollum is an amazing musical theater performer. Here, he displays his lush vocals and a deeply masculine explorer persona with a sunny disposition, even in the midst of harsh winter calamities.

This is a new musical with a complex and contemporary amount of technical creation within it. There is a ton of video production for background eye-candy, along with imitation Skype-ing, a layered and dense and beautiful soundscape with both recorded and live elements almost impossible to tease apart, and a complicated dance with plastic snowflakes.

The story involves Kat (Vigoda) who is a composer for video games and a new mother abandoned by her musician boyfriend when he gets cold feet about fatherhood. A subplot about her getting fired from her game composing amps up the pressure, probably unnecessarily. The fact that she has a colicky baby and has not been able to get sleep for 36 hours as a single mother surely is enough pressure to heap on her circumstance. That 36-hour deprivation prompts hallucinations about heroes, whereupon she gets a phone call from Ernest Shackleton (McCullom).

At that point, Kat relives with Ernest his harrowing journey to the South Pole where his ship gets stuck in the ice and no one is sure if they will return home. Even though the musical is fairly short, only 95 or so minutes, we still really don’t need to go through as many stages of the Shackleton adventure as are currently detailed. Nor do we need as many reprises as we get.

The first song of the evening, This Sucks, starts off gorgeously with Kat singing about how 300 beta-test boys love her composition. Within that is woven the event that she gets fired, but the song is an exultation that her work is admired by a set of admirers, teen-age boys, that is surprising and empowering. That part of the song is sublime.

Wading into suggestion territory, the song would work well if the “suck”y part were removed and she doesn’t get fired. The next song, Pick Up the Phone, focuses on the bad relationship part, which is another aspect that could be much reduced without harm, almost removing her boyfriend from the equation. The point is the wakefulness and the solitary pressure, not the stupid boyfriend. We also don't really need to see him in person, later.

An awkward inclusion of a doll as the baby, is another easy area to fix. There is so much video already, why not just video a baby so that when she hears the crying from the monitor, she can switch on a babycam to see if the baby needs attention? We don’t need to see a physical manifestation of the baby.

A lot of work has gone into the production, and it is intelligent and thoughtful and surprises in many lovely ways. There is no question that it could do extremely well transferring to New York City (the goal), if a bit more tinkering is done to iron out the few kinks.

Do check it out before it flies across the country! You’ll be happy you can say you saw it first! For more information, go to or or call 206-443-2222. 

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