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Theatre in Review: Marry Harry/Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Top: Wade McCollum, Val Vigoda. Photo: Jeff Carpenter Bottom: David Spadora, Megan Cowling. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Two new musicals are notable more for their design elements than their books or scores. Marry Harry, now running at York Theatre Company, announces its intentions in its second number, "Harry's Way." Just to be clear, the show features two characters named Harry; the Harry of the title is a nice, young Italian-American guy who, facing his thirtieth birthday, is sick and tired of slaving as the head cook in his family's East Village restaurant. Business is bad, anyway, and his father, also named Harry -- Big Harry -- announces that he has found the solution: Each night will feature a different international menu -- Indian on Monday, Japanese on Tuesday, Mexican on Wednesday....Well, you get the idea.

This remarkably lame scheme, which isn't really worth the number that is devoted to it, sends semaphore signals to the audience that nothing in Marry Harry is to be taken remotely seriously. It doesn't help that, a little later, Big Harry returns from a shopping trip, having bought all the necessary new spices plus table decorations -- all of them crammed into a bag that could barely accommodate six cans of Little Friskies cat food.

This blithe disregard for lived reality continues as we are introduced to Sherri, a nice young lady who, at the shop across the street from the Harrys' restaurant, is being fitted for her wedding gown, with her controlling mother, Francine, in tow. When Sherri discovers -- through a most unlikely coincidence -- that her fiancé is unfaithful, she staggers out of the bridal salon and runs into young Harry, who, taking a break, chats her up. Within minutes, she does what any woman would do ten minutes after seeing her wedding plans blow up -- she makes a midnight dinner date with a total stranger whom she just met in an alley.

The date goes so well, Harry and Sherri end up in bed, leading to a marriage proposal and confrontations with Big Harry and Francine, who at first violently oppose the match, then, almost instantly, change their minds, seeing yet another opportunity to plan their children's lives for them. This turn of events induces a bout of panic in Little Harry, who, worrying that marriage will scuttle his dream of working as a sous-chef for Lidia Bastianich, breaks up with Sherri. Did I mention that it isn't even noon yet?

The idea of a romance between two young people who are overly tied to their single parents is a decent jumping-off point for a show, but Jennifer Robbins' book is so slapdash that one quickly grows tired of these people and their contrived problems. That Marry Harry is meant to be a light entertainment is no excuse. Without some tenuous connection to psychological reality, there's no reason to care whether Harry and Sherri -- did their names really have to rhyme? -- will work out their problems. Given the inherent falsity of the project, there's little that Dan Martin (music) and Michael Biello (lyrics) can contribute; in any case, their songs mostly restate what we have already learned about the characters.

At least Marry Harry provides a calling card for David Spadora, who, as Little Harry, sings beautifully and displays a nice, diffident charm, and Morgan Cowling, whose work goes a long way toward making the flighty Sherri appealing. As Francine, Robin Skye has a nice way of turning silently apoplectic -- her mouth opening and closing in shock -- when crossed by her daughter. Lenny Wolpe, an old Broadway hand, does his best as Big Harry, although the character is, by any standard, a monster who can't begin to understand his son's need to separate from him.

The most delightful thing about Marry Harry is the set design. James Morgan is the artistic director of the York Theatre Company, but he is also a gifted designer. Here he creates a casual pop-up sketch of an East Village street -- the Italian restaurant at stage right and the bridal shop at stage left -- rendered in lovely pastels. It's rather like an Ed Koren New Yorker cover realized in three dimensions, and it delivers pleasure even when Marry Harry does not.

Paul Miller lights the proceedings with smooth, seamless skill. Tyler M. Holland dresses the principals with a sharp eye to their characters, and outfits the three-person chorus -- known as the Village Voices -- in all sorts of getups, from Bob Fosse bowler hats to wedding gowns to chefs' uniforms to Italian grandmother garb. Julian Evans' sound design is the best I've ever heard at the York.

Based on the audience reaction at the performance I attended, Marry Harry will be enjoyed by those looking for an easy, unchallenging evening out. But if everyone involved had written a show that was as witty and ebullient as the scenic design, the York might have had something really good on its hands.

Here's the premise for Ernest Shackleton Loves Me: Kat, a struggling composer -- she specializes in "installations," which, by her own admission, draw no more than a couple of hundred people to the obscure Brooklyn venues where they are put on -- is facing a major life crisis. A single mother -- Bruce, the child's father, is a good-for-nothing musician currently on tour with a Journey tribute band -- she is so low on cash that the heat in her apartment has been turned off. To keep herself and her infant afloat, she has signed on to compose a John Williams-style score -- a nifty bit of parody, by the way -- for a video game called Star Blazers, only to have her contract cancelled.

Desperate from worry and lack of sleep -- she has been up for thirty-six hours -- Kat is nonplussed when she starts receiving phone calls from someone claiming to be Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer, who died in 1922. Going to his Wikipedia page, she becomes engrossed in the story of his 1914-17 Antarctica expedition, a wild misadventure in which he nearly lost his entire crew. Before long, Shackleton himself emerges from Kat's refrigerator, announcing that she and her music are both unsurpassably beautiful; almost instantly, she has moved inside his story, accompanying him on his misfortune-laden voyage.

Under Lisa Peterson's canny direction, this bizarre premise is so smoothly put over that there are many things to enjoy. The opening number, "Stop Rewind Play Record," features Kat, using a keyboard and electric violin to create her own orchestral accompaniment while clearly, cleverly laying out the dimensions of her present dilemma; it's one of the most unusual and effective opening numbers I've seen in some time. The exchanges between a frazzled twenty-first century woman and her Edwardian explorer are often amusing, courtesy of the book's author, Joe DiPietro. "I bet I'm not as good a sailor as you," Kat says. "Nobody is, Katherine," he replies, with a smile so sunny and self-assured that you simply have to laugh. A scene in which Shackleton forces himself (and Kat) to eat seal blubber, pretending to his men that it is palatable, is a funny exercise in dissimulation. There's a charmer of a number that definitively lays out why one should never give money to either explorers or musicians, since both of them will blow it all in creative ways.

Val Vigoda, the production's leading lady and lyricist, is pretty heroic herself, taking on a role that never lets her leave the stage and requires her to sing and play multiple instruments. Best known as the founder of the band GrooveLily, she is also eminently likable, a trait that is extremely helpful in putting over the show's fantastic premise. Wade McCollum, employing the plummiest diction since John Gielgud hung up his doublet, is a remarkably charming and self-assured presence as Shackleton, whose mission is to convince Kat that "optimism is a form of true moral courage." (He also offers a couple of comic cameos as Madison, a too-cool video game developer, and Bruce, Kat's no-account ex.) I could do without the way he repeatedly pronounces his name, with undue emphasis on the first syllable; it's a running gag that never pays off. But he and Vigoda have real chemistry, especially during the lengthy climactic sequence, in which Shackleton and Kat set off in a sailboat to reach a whaling station hundreds of miles away, and, reaching land, must climb a nearly impossible mountain range to reach their destination. Brendan Milburn's pleasantly stirring music conveys Shackelton's indomitable spirit and also convinces us that Kat is a talented artist whose gift is worth saving.

Still, the show's most notable aspect is Alexander V. Nichols' production design, which takes in scenery, lighting, and projections. Kat's apartment is presented as a multilevel platform; at stage center is a table on which her musical equipment sits. Just upstage is a video wall, for her conversations with Bruce and Madison; other images include footage from Star Blazers, flames, and Shackleton's Wikipedia page; when Shackleton emerges from the fridge, the video component expands exponentially, taking in the large-scale screens located farther upstage. These feature gripping, wide-screen black-and-white images from the expedition, including ice- and snow-covered wastelands, roiling oceans, and a contingent of adorable dogs -- all of whom had to be killed when the going got tough.

This last detail points to the central, nagging problem afflicting Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. The idea of using this historical event as a way of working out Kat's personal problems is so weirdly random that often one's mind wanders, wondering exactly what the show's creators were thinking. It seems especially inappropriate that an event so grueling, so marked by human suffering, should be played for laughs. And while it can be challenging to be an avant-garde composer in the current social environment, it certainly pales next to the struggle for survival in an icy no-man's-land thousands of miles from civilization.

Many talented people -- including Nichols, whose work is stellar throughout; Chelsea Cook, the costume designer; and Rob Kaplowitz, the excellent sound designer -- work very hard to distract from such thoughts, and they often do so successfully. But I remain only half-convinced. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is a confident production with many crowd-pleasing aspects, but it is built on a questionable concept. It has everything but a sense of proportion; an unimaginable tale of human suffering is deployed to make a downtown artist feel better about her vocation. If you can buy that, you might have a good time. -- David Barbour

For more on Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, subscribers can check out LSA's interview with Alexander V. Nichols in the June 2015 online bonus article, "Theatre on Ice: Alexander V. Nicholas Designs Ernest Shackleton Loves Me." http://plasa.me/de8el


(8 May 2017)

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