Opening Nights: Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. (Seattle Center), 443-2222, $20–$45. 7:30 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.–Sun. Ends May 3.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: Let Valerie Vigoda sing! She’s a veteran lyricist and performer with the band GrooveLily and a musical-theater pro many times over. During the lion’s share of the new Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, presented by Balagan Theatre, she gets to demonstrate her proven chops. Yet in the show’s first half hour, the energetic score—music and lyrics are co-credited to her and Brendan Milburn—turns her into the quiet person at a loud party. Which would be fine if she were a guest dropping by to say hello, but Vigoda’s the host and heroine here. It’s an odd start to an otherwise successful small-scale musical.

Kat (Vigoda) is an unsuccessful opera composer saddled with a newborn in a freezing Brooklyn apartment after her baby daddy Bruce (Wade McCollum) departs to join a touring Journey cover band. Her latest indignity is being terminated from a lucrative contract scoring a computer game, leaving her with no creative outlet but an unwatched vlog. After 36 hours without sleep, she finds herself receiving mysterious online romantic overtures from her only viewer: explorer Ernest Shackleton (also McCollum). Shackleton crosses a century and a refrigerator door to be with his lady love, and Kat finds herself acting as official muse for his beleaguered Antarctic expedition.

Joe DiPietro’s script never attempts to hide the unreality of this time-travel romance, which is part of the show’s charm: Kat and Ernest behave like childhood playmates deep in a game of imagination time. Shackleton is a self-conscious caricature who seems aware of future events in his life and constantly announces his full name in a Dudley Do-Right timbre. Even Kat’s early stock-footage-happy video blogs and Skype chats with Shackleton resemble some lost episode of  ’90s children’s edutainment. A sort of foul-mouthed “Bill Nye the History Guy” spin-off, if you will.

This tight 90-minute show, directed by Lisa Peterson, features two likable leads who can sing and play banjo and violin, filling out a toe-tapping prerecorded score (don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming “We’re on Our Way” on the ride home). The effect is generally whimsical and pleasing—the other side of the coin being that the burden is largely on us to remember Kat’s stakes: identity crisis, financial desperation, and her child’s security. Shackleton’s actual story was a matter of life and death. Here, one explorer’s hell is an artist’s escape.

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