What do an early twentieth-century Arctic explorer and a modern-day single mother and struggling musician have in common? Almost nothing! And yet they make for the most charming companions in “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” a tale of existential grief and nautical adventure. This award-winning musical features a book by Tony Award-winner Joe DiPietro and music by Brendan Milburn, directed by Michael Unger.
After her husband leaves to sing in a Journey cover band, Kat (Elisa Carlson) is left to juggle a career as an avant-garde musician—making as much money as one would expect an avant-garde musician to make—while raising her son in a small apartment in Seattle. Feeling desolate, Kat creates an online dating account using her best means of expression, her music, and composes a song in real time, looping together complementary musical phrases on different instruments while singing, capping it off with a rock ’n’ roll solo on a black, fretless violin that draws unexpected attention.
Like a scene out of “Poltergeist,” the lights in the apartment sputter and the door to her refrigerator swings open. In bursts polar explorer Ernest Shackleton (Andrew Mueller) to answer her ad. His ship is stuck and sinking, and his twenty-seven-man crew only has seal blubber and Kat’s music to motivate them. She decides to join him on his quest. Together they teach each other the true meaning of bravery, Shackleton’s dedication for his men a metaphor for Kat’s turmoil with single motherhood and vice versa.
How does Shackleton time-travel a hundred years and traverse a thousand miles? How does he find Kat’s dating profile without electricity or the invention of the internet? The answer: Don’t worry about it. No explanation is given, and none is necessary. The show asks the audience to suspend disbelief to the maximum to get to the good stuff, the music.
Musical wizardry is produced when Carlson, a multi-instrumentalist and veteran of fast-paced dueling piano bars, creates orchestral compositions before our eyes, which then get taken over by conductor-keyboardist Cameron Tragesser (backstage) in a seamless transition. The buildup can be rocky as Carlson must do several things at once, and the difficulty can be obvious; but, once the threshold is reached and Tragesser takes over, Carlson and Mueller are free to trapeze around the stage in harmony, with songs like “We’re On Our Way,” and “Stop/Rewind/Play/Record” sticking in the memory. Kudos to music director Eric Svejcar for the fluidity of these musical transitions.
The set by scenic designer Scott Davis is surreal. It’s a normal kitchen onstage, a large mast and sail in the background, and a large wall and window (or a ceiling skylight?) hangs precariously overhead. Projected on the sail is footage from Shackleton’s century-old expedition. The show is that perfect combination of “edutainment” that would be wonderful for children… If it wasn’t for Kat dropping F-bombs every five minutes.
Abandon ye all hope of a passable premise and dive right into the wacky yet poignant tale of two adrift souls finding strength against overwhelming odds. “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” is an efficient, ninety-minute adventure that will leave you believing that you, too, can surmount life’s obstacles. No seal blubber necessary.
“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” is presented by Porchlight Music Theatre and runs through June 1 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets from $25 at the box office (773)777-9884 or here.