In another lifetime, I was a theatre publicist. Of the many shows I was privileged to work on, one in particular will always be near and dear to my heart. It was a new musical called "Fly By Night" (currently playing at Playwrights Horizons) receiving its world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Playing one of the lead roles was an actor named Wade McCollum. I saw that brilliant show multiple times and I learned something very important.
When you find out that Wade McCollum is on a playbill, you better get thee to that theatre. So with that lesson in mind, here is the scoop. Wade McCollum is co-starring in a new musical called "Ernest Shackleton Loves Me" presented by Balagan, performed at Seattle Rep. You know what to do.
Fortunately for Seattle, we can experience McCollum in the glory that is "Ernest" before it flits off to NYC. "Ernest" is a multi-media extravaganza with a book by Joe DiPietro ("Memphis," "Nice Work if You Can Get It," "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change") and music and lyrics by GrooveLily bandmembers Brendan Milburn and Val Vigoda ("Striking 12," "Sleeping Beauty Wakes"). Fun fact: "Ernest Shackleton Loves Me" got its start at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, so small world.
Vigoda stars as the "Me" part of the title, playing Kat, a punked out musician trying to eke out a living as a video game composer while being a single mom to a collicky infant. At the height of her sleep-deprived delirium, Kat gets a call from famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who has transcended time and space to connect with her. Together they journey across a wasteland of doubt and snow, she as his muse, he as her bright light in the darkness. Did I mention that all the while, Vigoda joyfully shreds on the electric violin?
McCollum plays the undaunted Ernest Shackleton, as well as voicing a variety of other characters. You first meet Ernest through a series of phone calls and Skype conversations on a screen, but when he finally burst on stage last weekend -- ruggedly handsome with frost clinging to his beard -- there was an audible gasp of delight from the audience. McCollum is a charming and gallant performer with a gorgeous versatile voice that inspires and also soothes, as in the lullaby "The Eye of the Storm."
DiPietro's book is funny and poignant, drawing the parallel between the life of an explorer and the life of an artist. Both are livelihoods rife with uncertainty, both financial and philosophical, and attract insanely passionate people who can't imagine doing anything else. Although explorers of the I'll Need Three Ships and Fifty Stout Men variety are probably few and far between these days, it's a refreshing and uplifting comparison. Milburn and Vigoda's music is stirring and each song builds beautifully.
Director Lisa Peterson makes great use of her small cast and there is never a dull moment. Alexander V. Nichols's stage design is simple, but packs a punch -- Kat's desk is a command center outfitted with gadgets, mics, sound boards, and keyboards, sitting atop a snow-covered platform framed by a huge screen and scaffolding. White trunks are shoved in various corners, their contents unknown. Vigoda helms the music-looping, cyber-chatting station like a champ. The opening number is astounding and it's all her.
There's nothing to figure out, there's no hidden meaning, there's no twist that makes you question everything you believe in. It's a show that encourages you to be brave in the face of impossible obstacles, to be loyal and steadfast when you're weak, and to learn how to play an instrument so that your life isn't so damn cold and bleak all the time. Go check out this unique theatre experience soon and, if you're lucky, composer Brendan Milburn will be outside after the show offering to send you free mp3s.
Also, sidebar, are you ready for a really long complicated attribution? Co-commissioned by La Jolla Playhouse and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, then developed at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Seattle's ACT, "Ernest Shackleton Loves Me" is enjoying its world premiere with Balagan Theatre, performed on the Seattle Rep stage. It takes a village, folks.
"Ernest Shackleton Loves Me"
Through May 3
On the Leo K Stage at Seattle Rep
For tickets, head to balagantheatre.org or call 206 329 1050