By Ruth Ross
Joe DiPietro is a prolific playwright—specifically, of comedies. Currently, he has a musical comedy on Broadway (the madcap Living on Love), starring opera diva Renée Fleming, while several of his plays have become staples of regional and community theaters (I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change comes to mind). George Street Playhouse has, in fact, presented three world premières of plays by DiPietro: Creating Claire, The Toxic Avenger and, in 2013, Clever Little Lies; the latter two have moved to the Great White Way from the theater in New Brunswick.
Fast forward to April 2015, once again to George Street Playhouse, for the time-crossing romance entitled Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, DiPietro's collaboration with composer/lyricists Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn. This quirky production brings a whole new vibe to George Street, whereby keyboards, drum machines, sound loopers, electric violins and an acoustic banjo in a score that encompasses a variety of musical styles, accompanied by video, Skype technology and green screen imagery provide a technological, contemporary setting for the unsettling events that unfold onstage. What begins as an eye-popping, mind-boggling, multimedia extravaganza ends up being a charming and delightful love story, whose resolution is heartwarming and, to quote Shackleton, "optimistic."
A sleep-deprived composer of musical soundtracks for video games, Kat suddenly finds herself out of a job. "Why does everyone leave," she wails, feeling abandoned, most notably by Bruce, her infant son Zach's father, who has decamped to join a Journey cover band out on the road. Alone, overwhelmed by motherhood, and unsure of her financial and romantic future, Kat is suddenly contacted—across decades and continents—by the famous polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, one of the heroes cited in Star Blazer, the video game she has most recently been scoring. Drawn to her music, the explorer asks her to provide a soundtrack for his journey to Antarctica where, in 1914, he lost his ship Endurance in the crushing ice and traveled 800 miles over sea and mountains to get help at a whaling station and rescue the men he left behind.
Kat and Shackleton communicate at first by Skype, but when he suddenly appears in her apartment, things really heat up, romantically and dramatically. This seems part hallucination (after all, Kat has been awake for 36 hours straight) and part cold-numbing reality as she joins him on this trek, all to a soundtrack of electronic music, country-style hootenannies, rousing sea chanties and a ballad or two. There's even a duel between Shackleton and Ponce de Léon over which man has Kat's affection!
I admit that this does seem a bit ditzy and "out there," but director Lisa Peterson keeps it all moving at a steady clip so the energy doesn't fail over the 90 minutes the tale takes to unfold. Alex Nichols' set is surreal, and evocative of the obstacles the two must surmount in the Antarctic, complete with lots of silver paint, snow (both on the ground and falling), trunks and crates that transform into props, and a huge screen at the back of the set for special effects and graphics.
Making these wacky goings on feel (almost) normal are two very talented and endearingly charming actors, Valerie Vigoda as Kat and Wade McCollum as Shackleton (and the other men in Kat's life). Vigoda is proficient at keyboard and drums, as well as playing a mean electronic fiddle. Her fingers really fly on the latter in the hootenannies and sea chanties! She holds her own vocally, too, in the many tunes she warbles with McCollum; the two are well matched so that one does not overpower the other. Easy on the eyes and ears, McCollum is deliciously attractive as the Scots-Irishman Shackleton, unfamiliar with all this technological stuff, but so enamored of Kat that he gladly takes her with him on his dangerous journey. He is especially terrific singing "The Eye of the Storm," fully expressing the explorer's optimism that he will complete his task successfully!
Providing musical accompaniment is the unseen Brendan Milburn, filling out the sound without overwhelming the singers. It is interesting to note that Vigoda is a classically trained graduate of Princeton and a winner of the 2009 Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award and twice the recipient of the Jonathan Larson Award for Excellence in Writing for the Theatre. Milburn, an accomplished record producer, has a Master of Fine Arts from NYU in Musical Theatre Writing. These two are no slouches in the music field!
What they have produced may puzzle older audience members at first (the younger crowd will plug into it immediately), but you will be won over by the allure and virtuosity of performance up there onstage. My only quibble with the production and script is the excessive use of coarse language. Perhaps they have been inserted to accentuate the contemporaneity of the characters, but at times the words are used gratuitously and become annoying.
Despite its idiosyncratic plot, I think you'll fall in love with Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. Be prepared to be won over by this gentle, albeit zany, romance. Its warmth and charm are a true testament to the magical power of the theater!
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me will be performed at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, through May 17. For information and tickets, call the box office at 732.246.7717 or visit www.GSPonline.org online.
(Photos by Jeff Carpenter from the 2014 ACT Theatre production in Seattle.)