Find a local theatre director compatible with your aesthetics. Seriously. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of whether or not you’re going to love a show. That’s Jill Anna Ponasik for me. I always seem to like the same stuff she does. I don’t care what show it is. I’m probably going to like it. Do I like the story of Ernest Shackleton? Yes. Do I want to go to a musical theatre show in which he’s a main character? Not exactly. So Ponasik’s directing something called Ernest Shackleton Loves Me? I’m there. Matt Daniels plays the title character? I love Matt Daniels. I'm going. It’s the dead of winter and I’m trekking out by bus into the cold to see a musical involving an Antarctic explorer from the early 20th century. Perfect.
Janice Martin is radiantly appealing as Kat: a single mom who also happens to be a struggling composer with a shoulder-mounted electric violin who falls in love a famous explorer who has been dead for just over 100 years. (Costume designer Karin Kopischke has done a gorgeous job with Kat’s look: a beautiful blend of details fit together brilliantly with a totally badass violin that looks like some weird phantom of a dreamy steampunk body modification.) Kat has picked-up work writing a musical score for a sci-fi video game, but things aren’t going well. The father of her baby is off on tour with a Journey cover band and she’s struggling to make ends meet.
Matt Daniels is gleaming with charm as the explorer. It’s damn near impossible to be genuinely inspiring in a musical theatre piece, but Daniels manages to pull it off through super heroic charisma that is beautifully amplified by some of the most casually complex production found on a locally-produced stage in recent memory.
The stage is often bathed in video projection that sometimes hits a hypnotic level of immersion. This is particularly impressive when one considers that so much of it is comes from actual footage of the Shackleton expedition in question. Still and motion images from film that was in-camera at the bottom of the world over a century ago serve as a backdrop for comedy, drama and deeply musical romance. Jason Fassl has done a breathtaking job with the lighting design for the show, which involves a complex interplay between projections wallpapering the background, light and shadow in the foreground, a little fog, a little snow and the enlarged screen representing Kat’s smartphone.
Given the mix of synthesizer and voices and onstage instruments, there is a hell of a lot that could go wrong with the sound on a show like this. (Expensive touring shows always manage to mess this up. People pay a lot of money to hear hisses and clicks and feedback direct from Broadway.) Sound Designer Kelsea Sexton has put together a seemingly flawless soundscape for the production that plays exactly like the type of hazy hallucination a composer might have if she’s been up for over 24 hours with anxieties and a crying baby. Music Director Eric Svejcar deftly navigates the show through composer Brendan Milburn’s dazzlingly weird patchwork of original rock, country, folk and yes: sea shanty that makes for one of the most uniquely energizing shows to grace local stages thus far this season.
The Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me runs through Feb. 6 at The Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre on 158 N. Broadway. For more information visit The Skylight online.
Also: That film from the bottom of the world from over a century ago? There's a free screening of it on the last Saturday of the month that's been fully restored from the original 33mm archival material. Those images are the last survivors of the expedition. They're really, really cool. South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition will screen at the Broadway Theatre Center at 3:45 pm on Saturday, January 29th. For more information, visit the Skylight.