Climb Every Mountain: “Earnest Shackleton Loves Me”

Presented by ArtsEmerson
Lyrics by Valerie Vigoda
Music by Brendan Milburn
Book by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Musical Direction by Ryan O’Connell
Composers Ryan O’Connell and Brendan Milburn

September 20 – October 4, 2015
Paramount Mainstage
599 Washington Street, Boston
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Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Boston, MA) At the heart of every impossible task is a glimmer of hope that, if followed, might just make the impossible happen.  As I enter the final stages of writing my dissertation for my PhD, this message simply can’t be repeated loudly or frequently enough.  Lucky me, the kind folks at ArtsEmerson understood exactly what I needed to hear tonight and so brought me (personally) Earnest Shackleton Loves Me to soothe my over-wrought mind and charm my tired adventurer’s heart.

The message at the heart of the show is simple enough; tenacity, faith, and a whole lot of hard work can make even the impossible possible; like Earnest Shackleton skyping with single mom turned video game composer Kat via a dating website.  The show’s two actors, Valerie Vigoda and Wade McCollum are insanely talented as they play, sing, and spelunk their way through the intrepid tale.  Vigoda regales the audience with tunes from her electric violin and live-mixes sound to astounding effect while McCollum plucks along on his banjo as the two traverse the arctic together.

The show makes great use of a multi-media set; a giant screen which acts as a moving backdrop/projection medium.  As the play embraces digital technologies as a real and present aspect of how we communicate as human beings in the twenty-first century, it’s really neat to see this aspect directly influencing the piece’s aesthetics.

The play’s weakness is most certainly in its writing.  If it wasn’t for the liberal sprinkling of colorful PG-13 vocabulary, this piece would be perfect for children’s theatre: its message was constantly and liberally hammered over the heads of the audience.  The characters’ emotional connections to each other and the issues at play were simplistic; there was no deep struggle to overcome, no mature themes to explore, no large dramatic problem standing in the protagonist’s way.  The play was simply about facing obstacles head on and, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, conquering them.  It could do with a little clever dramaturgy before it’s ready for prime time; while the action of the play certainly followed the career of ill-fated Arctic explorer Earnest Shackleton, it never built to any kind of central climax.  Rather, the play featured a smattering of troubles that continued to accost the heroes one after the other with no solution other than “well, we’d best get to it then.”  This very direct, blunt method of problem solving was reflected in the sophomoric dialogue and music that, while performed expertly, seemed uninspired and repetitive.  The show could do with some cutting, if nothing else, to streamline these elements into a cohesive dramatic arch rather than the wandering ramble it currently takes.

At several points during the production, I couldn’t help but liken it to two children playing pretend.  As the given circumstances of the action were such that what the audience witnesses is likely an exhaustion-induced fever dream straight from Kat’s subconscious, this seems fitting.  It might help to explain why the writing is the way it is, but that shouldn’t stand in the way of revisions to a more mature draft of this piece.  I, for one, would love to see what Kat dreams up when she’s done thinking about trite platitudes about conquering her personal mountains.

But this is mostly criticism in hindsight.  As I sat in the theatre, I was generally content to follow along with the story as it was presented to me.  There was never a moment during this production when I was not entertained.  The talent of the performers, the spirit of the piece, and the innovation of the set all led to a thoroughly enjoyable theatre-going experience.  At a pithy 85 minutes, it’s a great little ride that will (if nothing else) leave you wanting to storm Bastilles and conquer your demons because (by gum!) you too can be Earnest Shackleton!  I would particularly recommend this show to people who might not normally see musicals; I think it’s quirky enough to appeal to those who have yet to cultivate a yen for power ballads.

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