“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” chases a delightfully impossible dream. In a swift 90 minutes, this musical, playing through Oct. 4 at the Paramount Mainstage, takes us on a thrilling trip to Antarctica by way of an unheated apartment in Brooklyn.
At the center of the story is Kat (Valerie Vigoda), a freelance composer of video game soundtracks who’s just been fired for being too difficult to work with, although her song “Star Blazers” was a hit with teenage beta testers. While her musician boyfriend is on the road with a Journey cover band, she is at home, up for the past 36 hours with their colicky infant son.
Overwhelmed and discouraged, Kat posts a musical video on a dating site called Cupidsleftovers.com and gets a surprising response: Ernest Shackleton (Wade McCollum), in the midst of his ill-fated voyage on the Endurance, is inspired by Kat’s music and reaches across the miles — and 100 years — to meet her.
What follows is a deliriously lighthearted love story as Kat follows Shackleton to the island where his men were trapped by ice for months; along the perilous 800-mile journey by rowboat Shackleton took to a whaling station; and with him for the return and rescue of Shackleton’s crew members. Along the way, Shackleton serenades Kat with a sea shanty, accompanied on the banjo (an instrument Shackleton insisted his men take with them). The two join forces for a hilarious duet about their patrons called “Money and Musicians and Explorers” as well as a modified “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and Vigoda gets a chance to rock out alone on “Burned Again.”
Although there are just two performers onstage, director Lisa Peterson and designer Alex Nichols create an expansive feel on the remarkably flexible set that not only envelops us in Kat’s exhaustion-fueled adventure but also provides the context, using historic photos from the Shackleton trip to make clear exactly what the environment was like.
Musical virtuoso Vigoda slips easily from keyboards to electric drum pads, from banjo to electric violin, augmenting Brendan Milburn’s straightforward compositions with reverb and echo and other electronic effects. At the same time, she makes Kat’s frantic scrambling endearing even when she seems a little nuts.
McCollum balances just the right amount of braggadocio with stalwart optimism. He also has a glorious singing voice, shifting easily from a rich baritone to a solid falsetto with ease, and adding the needed tenderness to a ballad he sings to Kat’s baby boy. McCollum also has a wonderful sense of comic timing, turning what could have been a stiff, cardboard character into one with charm and heart. He has a lot of fun playing all the men in Kat’s life, from her oblivious boyfriend, Bruce, to another time-traveling explorer, Ponce de León.
“Ernest Shackleton Loves Me” doesn’t pretend to be more than a simple tale with a straightforward moral message: Never give up hope. Joe DiPietro’s story line is so sincere, and performers Vigoda and McCollum so believable, the musical defies cynicism and revels in its celebration of “full-fledged optimism.”
ERNEST SHACKLETON LOVES ME
Music by Brendan Milburn and Ryan O’Connell, lyrics by Valerie Vigoda, book by Joe DiPietro. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Musical direction by O’Connell. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Paramount Mainstage, through Oct. 4. Tickets: $10-$65, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.