The show introduces us to Kat (Vigoda) who is an unsuccessful composer writing background music for science-fiction video games. Her partner Bruce, a rock musician, has left to go on an extended tour with a Journey cover band, and she has their baby to take care of alone. Having been up 36 hours in a row due to baby Zack, she is ready for a hallucination. When she gets fired from her composing job, she signs up with Cupid’s Leftovers Dot.com, a dating service. Due to an electrical surge, she first hears from explorer Juan Ponce De Leon, then Jacques Yves Cousteau and finally Ernest Shackleton who visits her though the refrigerator from his 1914 Antarctic expedition on the Endurance which was ice bound in for over a year.
Aside from liking her music, Shackleton has also learned to play the banjo. It may be an added attraction that Kat has a facility for working on adventure games intended for males. She joins Shackleton on his 800 mile journey in a rowboat to find food to save his men, and crosses a mountain with him to reach a whaling station. All is backed by Alexander V. Nichols’ production design which is made up of huge blow-ups of actual photographs from the Shackleton expedition on a series of screens that form the back of the set. And then Kat’s adventure dream is interrupted by the return of Bruce.
Brendan Milburn’s music is played by Vigoda on her electric violin which is in evidence through most of the show as well as unseen music director Ryan O’Connell at the keyboard. Not only does this give the score an odd sound in the orchestrations by O’Connell and Milburn, it takes some getting used to seeing the heroine sawing away on her instrument accompanying many of the songs, shades of John Doyle. The lyrics vary from ballads to sea chanteys to a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche. The rhymes alternate between couplets, quatrains and sextets. While the songs themselves are pleasing, they stop the show cold as none of them forward the show in any way.
McCollum is both charming and charismatic playing among other characters the self-entitled and irresponsible Bruce, the hippie techie Sal, Kat’s spaced-out boss Madison, and the intrepid and heroic Shackleton, although at first it is not obvious that he is all of these characters. It is a bravura performance showing tremendous range as he makes each one entirely different. Vigoda is another story. Her Kat is plucky but is mainly a device to get Shackleton to tell his story. We never learn much about her and she never changes as the adventure unfolds. Her violin playing is excellent but it is a bit of a distraction from her other activities in the musical.
Chelsea Cook’s costumes are completely realistic, but Nichols’ physical set with its scaffolding and on stage equipment never lets us forget that we are in a theater, not on an adventure since his lighting never blocks anything out. Lisa Peterson’s direction is smooth but she is unable to turn the show into something that it isn’t. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief but may charm those who easily succumb to whimsy.
Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (through June 11, 2017)
Second Stage Theatre/Tony Kiser Theater, 305 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.ernestshackletonlovesme.com
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission