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Quirky new musical shakes up Shackleton legend

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Wade McCollum admits that his current role is a little hard to explain. He is half of the cast of “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” and, during the course of the play, he becomes the famed explorer, Ponce de Leon, and three other characters.

“It’s an unique and crowd-pleasing show, but it’s not easy to describe to anyone,” McCollum said. “It’s the story of a single mother facing insurmountable odds. So she hallucinates Ernest Shackleton coming through her refrigerator. I was really touched when I read the script as it is a very, very unlikely love story.”

Pitched to him as a rock musical with a difference, McCollum also was excited to reunite with a couple of former colleagues. “I played Woody in [Shackleton composers] Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn’s ‘Toy Story: The Musical,’” said McCollum. “But the music that they created for this is genre defying. It’s super eclectic. Lots of funk rock tunes, strong banjo, and old traditional sea shanty. Val plays some beautiful mournful violin.”

Vigoda stars as the unemployed video game composer dealing with Shackleton in her kitchen as well as performing on multiple instruments and using on-stage recording gear to create a one-woman symphony.

“We’re creating the music live. She’s playing and holding harmony down. All I have to do is be goofy,” McCollum said.

The technical virtuosity of the show adds another layer of complexity for both performers, and McCollum creates some of his characters as completely off-stage voices while others begin as video projections.

“I first Skype in as Shackleton so it is like a live movie hybrid for the first forty minutes. The use of technology is quite compelling. As an actor, it’s fun to act for the camera and then step out for the audience,” he said. “I’m a very physical actor too, so creating a three-dimensional personality with only my voice was a cool and interesting challenge.”

He also learned to play a banjo for the role. “That’s historically accurate as Ernest brought a banjo along on his expedition,” he noted. “He used it to keep up the men’s spirits.”

The play represents first-of-its-kind collaboration between Balagan Theatre, ACT Theatre, and Seattle Repertory Theatre. The Seattle Rep built the set and provided the performance space for the Seattle premiere, ACT’s Central Heating Lab contributed to script and show development, and Balagan served as the show’s producer as part of its program to create a bridge between Seattle’s musical community and New York’s Off-Broadway scene.

Certainly McCollum thinks that the show could transition to a larger venue in New York. At its core, McCollum said that “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” holds the same appeal as any piece of theater, a chance to connect with fully realized characters struggling to make sense of their lives.

“Audiences have embraced the quirky chamber musical,” he said. “If it’s philosophically bent toward a truth that everyone can get behind.”

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“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” opens tonight (April 18) and runs through May 3 on the Leo K stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre. For more information, see Balagan’s website.

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