Expectations should always be lowered a bit when seeing revivals of musicals written before Oklahoma!. In pre-war musicals, songs weren’t intended to move plots forward or reveal new depths of characterization. Laced with inappropriate racial epithets, the original musical version of Nymph Errant (1933) by Cole Porter and Romney Brent would have been impossible to mount today. Contemporary librettist/adaptor Rob Urbinati was wise to return to the source material, a novel by James Laver, to craft his new book taking the best parts from both novel and original libretto. The revised musical, now called Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant, is currently being produced Off-Broadway by The Prospect Theater Company on Theatre Row.
Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant is the story of Eve (played by an endearing Jennifer Blood), who graduates from a Swiss finishing school. Instead of returning home to Oxford and Oliver, the man she loves, she decides to seek love in the world at-large. Like a female Candide, Eve goes on a Grand Tour of picaresque adventures that take her to nightclubs in Paris, a nudist colony in Austria, a Venetian palazzo, the ruins of Athens, and a harem in Turkey before leading her back to her inevitable true love in Oxford. There is a sweet university-show feel at the Clurman Theatre, but the production never survives the self-defeating source material.
With the lack of plausible storyline, redundant coincidences, dated sexist and homophobic jokes, and severely under-developed characters, the silliness of Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant makes the plot of Anything Goes seem like Angels in America. The savvy 21st century audience is always light years ahead of the material. When there’s an occasional chuckle in the auditorium, it’s more out pity for the performers and general theatre-going politeness. Dramaturgically, the character of Eve and her story simply can’t hold together a full length musical. She’s never allowed to be larger than life, and she’s a passive protagonist for most of the show. Through no fault of Ms. Blood, the character of Eve simply isn’t developed enough by Urbinati & Co to sustain a 2 ½ hour show.
Director/choreographer Will Pomerantz makes matters worse with several missteps. Meaningless apple references are sprinkled throughout the proceedings with no dramatic payoff other than to remind us the main character’s name has a biblical reference. There is also a head-scratching moment when a bust of Beethoven is covered in chocolate sauce inexplicably at the climax of the song “Red, Hot, and Blue.” And if the scantily clad ensemble is going to be miked in an intimate Off-Broadway theatre, the mikes really need to be hidden. The rest of the creative design team makes choices that must have seemed efficient on paper, but only hinder the show in practice. The tight set of Brian Prather feels claustrophobic, especially during the uninspired dance numbers; set pieces intended to help the episodic nature of the show flow smoothly only add clutter to the small playing space. Frederick Alden Terry (musical arrangements) and Jame Bassi (musical direction) err on the side of simplistic nostalgia when a few contemporary flourishes and surprises would have been more apropos for a re-imagined work. Whitney Locher’s costumes are more successful, as they quickly help to establish differentiation in locale and character, if they also draw too much attention to themselves, as with the strangely disturbing nudist sight-gag costumes.
What fun remains in Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant is some fully committed hambone acting, a comely cast with strong voices, and a few good Cole Porter songs. Porter’s music hall-style lends itself nicely to performers who enjoy putting on funny accents and doing silly shtick. Most successful are Broadway veteran Cady Huffman and rubber-faced Abe Goldfarb who fully commit to each character they portray, both robustly performing their comic business. Ms. Huffman also delivers one of the musical highlights of the show with “The Cocotte.” As an aging prostitute, she is tender, tough, and funny, showing off her considerable chops with élan and a feather. The ensemble has many strong voices, but the stand-out is Sarah Jayne Blackmore whose phrasing of “The Boyfriend Back Home” reveals a young performer to keep an eye on. Young leading man Andrew Brewer sings the show’s best ballads; his natural pop styling offers the audience a thankful rest from a show where the performers all seem to be working overtime to sell the second-rate material.
Any Cole Porter score is guaranteed to have songs with clever rhymes and solid melodies. Porter also knew his melodies needed to be unobtrusive if the audience was going to be amused by his very clever lyrics. Still, the original Nymph Errant is a show without any songs that became standards, probably one of the reasons it fell into obscurity. To remedy this, several better Porter songs were interpolated into the score from other shows. It certainly improves things, but it still can’t save the overall work.
When a theatre re-visits an old show, the question of significance comes up. Even with all the revisions and improvements, Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant remains out of touch with our times and wanders far from contemporary relevance.
photos by Lee Wexler, Images for Innovation
Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant
Prospect Theater Company at the Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row in New York City
scheduled to end on July 29, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.prospecttheater.org/