Val Vigoda is a compact bundle of talent. She plays a strapped-on electric violin like a demon. She sings with a voice that pushes the walls into expanded dimensions. She acts with great charm. She’s an ex-Army lieutenant, which is something off the subject here.
Fans of the GrooveLily band, which she founded with Brendan Millburn, know her from the GrooveLily works, including Striking Twelve, the exhilarating musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl.
Now, she’s rousing Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre hall with Ernest Shackleton Loves Me—a production that has Lisa Peterson maximizing its many strengths. The musical is so original that many spectators might sit through it with jaws dropped. That’s when they’re not cheering its high entertainment quotient.
Vigoda—who wrote the lyrics to Millburn’s music—starts out electronically looping an opening number from something simple to something irresistibly complex. In addition to her handy violin, she works a synthesizer as well as a couple of drumsticks.
But because there’s a Joe Pietro book here to reckon with, she quickly moves into it. Reluctantly admitting, as a character called Kat, that she’s 45, she says she’s looking to date. She’s using an online service but at first not getting any encouraging responses.
Then she does but hear something positive but not from anywhere she expected. Ernest Shackleton (Wade McCollum), who led the benighted 1914 expedition to Antarctica, shows up on production designer Alexander V. Nichols’s projections as an ardent swain—so ardent that before long he emerges in the flesh from a Frigidaire on a set that happens to resemble a rock concert stage more than a home.
Fast as Vigoda plays a complicated riff and sound designer Rob Kaplowitz does right by her throughout, a freezing Kat joins her wooer on the frozen tundra where his ship has sunk. He’s hoping the ice will thaw so he can leave to get help in bringing his 22-man contingent home to England.
Singing lively song after lively song about their plight—a couple of times with Shackleton playing banjo—they escape Antarctica, travel 800 miles to seek relief and return for the crew.
More significant, however, is the developing love story. Yes, Shackleton’s already gone on Kat. It takes longer for her to around. When she does, there’s an across-the-century smooch that delights the patrons.
The Ernest Shackleton Loves Me complication is that Kat is married to Bruce (McCollum doubling). He’s the spouse who’s left home for a band tour and to dally with someone calling herself Debbbie. Yes, she spells her name with three “b”s, which is the trigger for another big audience guffaw. Bruce has also abandoned his and Kat’s son, who’s heard and appears swaddled when at one point Shackleton fetches him from the wings and sweetly calms him.
Perhaps in the plot summary so far the love affair and the adventure that brings it to a boil has already struck readers as relying on something extremely thick in the tuner’s tone: whimsy.
The mock bravura manner with which McCollum plays Shackleton is whimsical enough, but there’s an even more ticklish aspect to it. Bookwriter Pietro is dealing with a mother looking to find a viable father for her young son. She’s already burdened with the unfit Bruce, who does come back to reclaim his place in the household.
Kat may not be ready for that, but for her to give the impression she’s satisfied with having had the imagined Shackleton affair is pushing whimsy too far. That doesn’t do it for a woman with this amount of indomitable spirit.
As part of GrooveLily Vigoda has already been involved in musicals somewhat like this one. Yet, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me still comes across as absolutely original. It’s a welcome rarity.
There’s no way to look at Saheem Ali’s Twelfth Night and not see he’s had a great time directing the William Shakespeare comedy. Likewise, the nine-member cast is having a hoot from the moment the audience starts arriving. The cheerful acting gang is already grooving as if they’re already at a Jamaican shindig.
And be it known, a good excuse for the actors to twirl like dervishes from the get-go is the ubiquitous presence of familiar contemporary ditties and original music by Michael Thurber—some of it set to the Bard’s lyrics and some of it rapped.
The Public’s Mobile Unit production comes to the Public for a short run after touring the five boroughs, in accord with founder Joseph Papp’s conviction that Shakespeare belongs to the people, whether they have the money for a ticket or not.
This undoubtedly means many viewers are seeing this tale of love, mistaken identity and foolishness for the first time. They see shipwrecked Viola (Danaya Esperanza, already a skilled Shakespearean) dress up as Cesario and join the court of the love-hungry Orsinio (Michael Bradley Cohen, also doubling as the silly Andre Aguecheek).
Because Orsinio is determined to win the hand of Olivia (Ceci Fernandez), Cesario is dispatched to Olivia’s court. There, when not doing their mistress’s bidding, the zanies Sir Toby Belch (Christopher Ryan Grant), Maria (Aneesh Sheth) and Aguecheek get their downtime fun by teasing Olivia’s hyper-serious equerry, Malvolio (David Ryan Smith).
That Ali does such a raucous job of bringing Twelfth Night so alive and kicking is creditable. He has probably done first-timers a great favor: They’re likely to want lots more. But there is a drawback. To be sure, this is a comedy, but just about every time the great playwright quilled one, his concept of comedy included clouds of tragedy.
This is certainly true here. Take Olivia. One reason she continues to brush off Orsinio’s advances is that she’s mourning the death of her bother. (Viola is also mourning a supposedly lost brother, Sebastian, played by Sebastian Chacon).
But director Ali wants none of that. Instead, he has Fernandez go for laughs from first to last, thereby bleaching Shakespeare’s multi-level composing of its more baleful layers. And, incidentally, Ali also sees his way clear to interpolate obscenities like the f-word, the uttering of which actually gets applause.
Still, a revival like Ali’s that gives so many patrons a pungent taste of Shakespeare’s abundant pluses has to be embraced. It could even be said that, like this one, the Public’s Mobile Unit productions are often equal to—maybe even superior to—what goes on every summer in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.