There’s a lot to love in “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me”

The set for “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” features a metal-frame stand-up desk upon which set microphones, a tape deck, amps and speakers, various other electronic devices and, oh yes, a set of bongo drums hanging on a side pole. It’s like an elaborate DJ platform. “This looks like fun already,” I thought as I walked in. Little did I envision how much fun this 90-minute musical adventure would be, how creative, how rhythmic, how engrossing, how downright wonderful.

With a book by Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro (“Memphis”), music by Brendan Milburn, “a stay-at-home dad who also writes songs” (great priorities), and lyrics by GrooveLily’s brilliant electro-violinist Val Vigoda, the piece is essentially a rock opera within a rock opera that works on both levels.

Wade McCollum and Val Vigoda

Kat (Vigoda) is a stressed-out Brooklyn single mom (the father is touring with a Journey cover band) who composes video-game backup music. Seeing and hearing her laying down and overdubbing multiple tracks is a show in itself. At one point she accesses a whole orchestra, section by section. Electronic music has never sounded so live. With complimentary projections on the stage’s wide back wall, it is mesmerizing.

After a while, defying space and time, Ernest Shackleton gives her a ringup. Yes, that Ernest Shackleton, who led the famous almost-made-it expedition to the South Pole 100 years ago. (Don’t question it, okay? She also gets a flirty call from Ponce de Leon and one from Jacques Cousteau, but that one’s a wrong number.) She and Shackleton Skype, which we see on the screen and, inspired by her music, he convinces her to join his polar exploration. (He and his crew’s rousing sea shanty helps his cause.) In a state of wonder, she Googles him, with the resultant authentic footage and photos projected on the rear screen. It’s a smart, swift and entertaining history lesson. (I’m now your go-to Shackleton guy.) Shackleton (Wade McCollum) finally appears in the flesh, entering from (not telling), and the two are off on their – and our – adventure.

TOP OF THE WORLD! (or bottom)

What follows is a visual recreation of the expedition of 1914-17, with those evocative projected images and a ready supply of spirited vocal and instrumental gems. Kat proves as intrepid an adventurer as Ms. Vigoda is a musician; the duets with McCollum’s Shackleton (who brought his banjo along) are exhilarating.

There’s a message embedded in this rare combination of music, adventure, romance, fantasy and green screen technology: Whether your challenge is reaching the South Pole come what may or creating electronic installations that go largely unappreciated, you gotta’ “be your own freakin’ beacon of hope.”  Embodied by two charismatic performers and vividly directed by Lisa Peterson, this intrepid explorer and struggling Brooklyn composer inspire each other to do just that. I loved being on the journey with them. You will too.

Through June 11 at Second Stage, 307 West 43rd Street. Performances Tues-Sun. For schedule and tickets ($89): 866-811-4111 or at www.ovationtix.com

There’s a Playbill credit for Ryan O’Connell: Music Director, Orchestrations and Additional Music. He takes an on-screen curtain call, seated at a keyboard. His coordination between the live and electronic instrumentation is genius, but if all he did was “conduct” the chase music that sends you out of the theater on a high, he’d more than earn his keep. 

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

But soft! What light on NJ Rep Stage? ‘Tis “& Juliet”

There is an intriguing one-act, 80-minute play on the New Jersey Repertory stage. Unfolding in the fertile theatrical setting of higher-education academia, it deals with faculty jealousy, conflicts between established and fresh values, artistic integrity and racial tension. It takes some digging, however, to excavate that play from Robert Caisley’s two-act “& Juliet,” which is burdened by 20 extra minutes of repetitious dialogue. “Get to it!” I wanted to call out several times as the characters talked around the same topic over and over before finally making their points.

Those points revolve around newly-hired Theatrical Department director Charlie’s decision to pass over well-prepared African-American female student Annie in favor of casting a 14-year old boy as Juliet in the upcoming Shakespearian production.  (Despite Gwyneth Paltrow’s luminous turn in “Shakespeare in Love,” the original Juliet, circa 1598, was Robert Goffe, whose modern-day counterpart is an off-stage presence in Caisley’s play.)

John Fitzgibbon, left, Jacob A. Ware and Nadia Brown in “& Juliet” (Photos: SuzAnne Barabas)

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Blog, Professional, Regional

La guerra es el infierno para “The Women of Padilla” a Two River Theater

“The Women of Padilla” is a very well-written play, a realization I came to while reading it a couple days after seeing it at Two River Theater.

If ever a play was suited for Two River’s intimate black-box Huber theater, it is “Padilla,” but Tony Meneses’ 75-minute play about eight Mexican women waiting at home while their husbands are away at war is being staged in Two River’s 350-seat main auditorium, a veritable arena by comparison.  On the page, each woman is distinctly drawn both individually and in relation to the others. In brief, often clipped exchanges (most speeches are one or two sentences), Meneses exposes the women’s close-to-the-surface emotions with clarity and urgency. On the wide stage those elements are diffused; the words are there (and the performances are fine), but there’s little tension.

While there is a Padilla municipality in Mexico (thanks, Google), the title refers not to a location, but to a shared surname, acquired by the eight women when each married one of eight Padilla brothers, all of whom are at arms in an unspecified war (“It’s just men and bloodshed; it doesn’t matter where”). The sisters-in-law are thus linked by marriage, but more so by longings for their husbands and fears for their well-being. In the course of the play they tease, bicker, gossip (best not be the absentee) and support one another.

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Blog, Professional, Regional

“The Play That Goes Wrong” goes right!

Two-thirds of “The Play That Goes Wrong” is hilarious. The other half (apologies to Yogi Berra) is just funny. If you’ve ever appeared in a play, or produced, directed or stage-managed one, something that goes wrong in “Goes Wrong” has gone wrong for you. Just not everything, at least not all in the course of one performance.

The screw-ups during the (fictional) Cornley University Drama Society’s presentation of “The Murder at Haversham Manor” are relentless. There’s barely time to take a breath between them, which actually starts to dull one’s comic-appreciation-edge with 20 minutes or so still to come. Having noted (and dismissed) that factor, the U.K.’s (actual) Mischief Theatre production of “The Play That Goes Wrong” is a treat.

Co-written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, all whom appear in it, and directed by Mark Bell, who does not (someone had to engineer rehearsals), “Goes Wrong” is a master class in comic invention and execution. The cast’s split-second timing of the intricate repartee is astounding; that they all survive the physical aspects is miraculous.

 

Cast members of “Murder at Haversham Manor” (and “The Play That Goes Wrong”)

For verbal dexterity, there’s the scene where the rapid back-and-forth dialogue is inverted, with the answers coming before the questions, which is funny on its own. But the topic is framed such that the inversion becomes a risqué exchange. It has to be heard to be believed. An ingenious bit of physical business has the recipient of a phone call unable to get to the phone (don’t even ask why), so the others form a hand-to-hand chain from the receiver, ending with the familiar mimed-phone fingers held to his ear. There’s even a brief interruption for a broken connection. You couldn’t make it up. But these folks did.

The “Haversham Manor” title page notes that the production “was made possible by the British-American Cultural Exchange Program” (say what?), while the “Goes Wrong” page informs that the actors “are appearing with the permission of Actors’ Equity Association.” Fictional, real or somewhere in between, they are more than welcome.

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“The Play That Goes Wrong” goes right.

Two-thirds of “The Play That Goes Wrong” is hilarious. The other half (apologies to Yogi Berra) is just funny. If you’ve ever appeared in a play, or produced, directed or stage-managed one, something that goes wrong in “Goes Wrong” has gone wrong for you. Just not everything, at least not all in the course of one performance.

The screw-ups during the (fictional) Cornley University Drama Society’s presentation of “The Murder at Haversham Manor” are relentless. There’s barely time to take a breath between them, which actually starts to dull one’s comic-appreciation-edge with 20 minutes or so still to come. Having noted (and dismissed) that factor, the U.K.’s (actual) Mischief Theatre production of “The Play That Goes Wrong” is a treat.

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

A classic well told: “Of Mice and Men” in Holmdel, NJ

Some years ago I picked up a 1939 edition of John Gassner’s “20 Best Plays of the American Theatre” at the Cincinnati Public Library’s Buck-a-Book sale. Among the titles are some that haven’t left the printed page in decades (Winterset, Boy Meets Girl), a couple of occasionally revived artifacts (Golden Boy, Three Men on a Horse), one or two I’d never even heard of (End of Summer, The Fall of the City) and one enduring classic: future (1962) Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” adapted virtually intact from his 1936-37 novella, which has been documented as one of the ten most-frequently read books in public high schools. In the work (as well as in “The Grapes of Wrath,” of course), Steinbeck contemporaneously captured the tone of the Great Depression with an insight usually reserved for historians.

Holmdel Theatre Company is nearing the end of its limited “Of Mice and Men” run. Insightfully directed by Michael Kroll on Joyce Horan’s just-enough of a spare set, and cast exactly to type, this is as fine a “Mice and Men” staging as you’ll see anywhere – certainly in a 95-seat converted barn, set on a sprawling suburban New Jersey high school campus. But that is indeed where you can catch it. If you’re lucky.

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Blog, Community, Professional, Regional