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Stages | Terry Byrne

An earnest and musical exploration of love

In ‘Shackleton,’ a Brooklyn composer meets the indomitable snowman

Wade McCollum (left) and Val Vigoda in “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.”
Wade McCollum (left) and Val Vigoda in “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me.”Jeff Carpenter

Val Vigoda’s exuberance is irresistible, even over the phone.

The co-creator and one of two performers in “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” says the musical, presented by ArtsEmerson Sunday through Oct. 4 at the Paramount Main Stage, is “transformative and exhilarating every time I perform it.”

Vigoda, who plays an electric violin augmented by electronics, describes “Ernest” as full of “music and photographs and videos, but mostly, it’s a simple love story about my hero of fearless optimism, Ernest Shackleton.”

Shackleton was a British explorer of Antarctica, noted for his ability to keep his crew’s spirits up no matter what hardships they faced. His most memorable adventure occurred in 1915-16, when he and his crew were trapped for months in frozen waters near the South Pole. In “Ernest Shackleton Loves Me,” the upbeat explorer time-travels to contemporary Brooklyn where Kat (Vigoda), a video game music composer, has just lost her job, her unreliable boyfriend is on tour with a Journey cover band, and she is alone and sleep-deprived caring for her newborn baby.

Vigoda says she and her husband, composer Brendan Milburn, “happened on an exhibit about Shackleton and were overwhelmed with his determination and positive attitude in a situation where most other people would have given up.”

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Shackleton’s perseverance resonated with Milburn and Vigoda, since as artists they constantly question what Vigoda calls “our crazy, rhapsodic career.”

Milburn and Vigoda are two of the three members of the band GrooveLily, which features Milburn’s compositions and Vigoda’s lyrics. In addition to the band, the duo have been writing music for stage shows at Disney World, as well as other musicals. “Shackleton” emerged out of an interest they had in creating a one-woman show for Vigoda.

“I love being onstage, but Brendan prefers to stay behind the scenes,” says Vigoda. “When we talked about it, we wanted to steer away from memoir-style solo shows and go with a compelling story. When we were discouraged, we thought a lot about what Shackleton would do.”

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Vigoda and Milburn met with Joe DiPietro, who has written books for the musicals “Memphis,” “All Shook Up,” “Toxic Avenger,” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” His new play, “Clever Little Lies,” opens next month on Broadway, starring Marlo Thomas.

“I’d never heard of Ernest Shackleton,” says DiPietro, “but when they mentioned that he made sure his men carried a banjo with them even when they abandoned their ship, I knew music was the connection.”

Milburn’s melodic pop-rock compositions, combined with Vigoda’s smart, sharp lyrics, create the spine of the musical. The conceit for the show is that Shackleton is inspired by Kat’s music and invites her to accompany him on his perilous journey to the island where his 23-member crew has been stranded.

To create a world that can shift from a small Brooklyn apartment kitchen to the wasteland of the Antarctic environs, Vigoda and Milburn turned to director Lisa Peterson.

“There’s a lushness to the story,” says Peterson. “It’s in the music, it’s in the visuals, but it’s also in this delightful idea that this contemporary woman could go off with Shackleton and help him through her music.”

Audiences are willing to take the leap of imagination because Vigoda is so compelling as Kat, Peterson says. “The story emanates from her perspective,” she says. “It all makes sense in her world, so the audience just goes with her.”

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Peterson encouraged the appearance of Shackleton onstage (he’s played by Wade McCollum). Peterson also turned to collaborator Alexander V. Nichols to create the set, projections, and lights that, she says, “envelop the audience in each of these worlds.”

DiPietro says “Ernest” is certainly not a typical musical. “I think [Vigoda and Milburn] pushed me in a less conventional musical theater direction,” he says, “while I probably pushed them to keep the story structure coherent.”

“It’s an epic adventure,” says Vigoda, “but I think it resonates with audiences because it’s about the courage and hope everyone needs to get whatever we’re confronted with.”

Beckett’s women

This weekend Poets Theatre is presenting four plays featuring women by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett. “Beckett Women: Ceremonies of Departure” features Boston actresses Amanda Gann (performing “Not I”/“Pas Moi” in English and then French), Sarah Newhouse in “Footfalls,” and Carmel O’Reilly in “Rockabye.” All three will come together in “Come and Go.”

Director Robert Scanlan says Beckett himself suggested this grouping of plays after denying Scanlan, then a freelance director, permission to stage an all-female “Waiting for Godot” with the Irish theater troupe Charabanc. Says Scanlan by e-mail, “I am finally making good on his suggestion.”

David Gammons is designing the set for the production, which will be presented at Farkas Hall on the Harvard University campus through Sunday. Tickets are $15-$20. Call 617-496-2222 or go to www.poetstheatre.org.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

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Book by Joe DiPietro. Music by Brendan Milburn. Lyrics by Valerie Vigoda. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Presented by ArtsEmerson.

At the Paramount Main Stage, Sept. 20-Oct. 4. Tickets: $10-$65, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org


Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.