Friday, September 14, 2012

"Nymph Errant" - Lovely to Look At and to Listen To

By Judd Hollander

Cole Porter's 1933 musical Nymph Errant (music and lyrics by Cole Porter, adapted & with new libretto by Rob Urbinati, based on the original novel by James Laver, and the original libretto by Romney Brent), presents a scenario whereby sex is the constant byword; with more subtle themes about love, following your dreams and getting to know oneself also present. The show finally makes its long-delayed American debut at Theatre Row Studios, as presented by the Prospect Theater Company. While not top-notch Porter, as the show is rather dated, even with the revisions to the book – along with the score being somewhat quaint at times - there is no denying power of the music and lyrics. Plus this is a wonderful chance to hear these tunes on stage.

Matters start off in Oxford, England where a group of young female students have just completed their final year of finishing school under the tutelage of Miss Pratt (Cady Huffman). All of the now-free girls have planned out what they believe their futures will hold, the common idea being to experiment fully with life and love while they're still young, preferably doing so among the dens of inequity in France and elsewhere. Eve (Jennifer Blood) on the other hand, is preparing to go home and marry her true love Oliver (Andrew Brewer), the gardener on her family's estate, eschewing all other worldly temptations, sure of her lot in life. However at the last minute, she too has a change of heart and decides to see what the world has to offer. Her adventures start soon after when she meets Andre De Croissant (Sorab Wadia), a producer of the Follies shows in France and who sees in Eve his next new star. Intrigued, Eve goes off with Andre, after she makes him promise that he will never try to take advantage of her.

Eve quickly decides that the life of a Follies star is not for her and finds herself falling for, in short order, a suicidal Russian composer (Abe Goldfarb), an Italian count (Goldfarb), a Greek magnate named Constantine (Wadia), and an American plumber (Brewer); while also meeting up with Clarissa (Huffman), a gracefully aging cocotte; a blues singer from Memphis (Natalie E. Carter), and a murderous Turkish bandit (Goldfarb) with a penchant for designer clothing. Eve also ends up in a German nudist colony, becomes trapped in a harem - courtesy of the white slave trade, and also manages to bump into every one of her former classmates during her travels while seeing how their lives have turned out.

Somewhere during this period, the play taking place over approximately a year's time, Eve's determination to abstain from sex, as she's saving herself for the loyally waiting Oliver, vanishes completely and she transforms into someone rather eager for a good time in the sack. Though in true musical comedy fashion, one never can get what one wants when one wants it. Constantine for example, is much more concerned with ancient stone statues; the Emir who holds Eve captive with the other girls in his harem, will take some time to get through his list of nubile concubines before she can have her turn; and her plumber friend is perhaps a bit too dense to know what Eve truly needs. Or perhaps he actually does understand, and that's why he refuses her.

Even with the updating of the Nymph Errant book, the gestation process explained in the program notes, there's no getting over dated feeling of the work. Plus, with the libretto's entire through line of sex, it being so much more overt here than in most of Porter's other shows, it's easy to see how this play might have been deemed too controversial or not mainstream enough for American audiences of the time. Eventually of course, the emotion of love takes center stage, with its gentle morality lesson about what's truly important in life.

In a nice touch by the cast and director Will Pomerantz, the company, instead of trying to hide the limitations of the script, embraces them wholeheartedly; putting some of the quaint elements front and center while still allowing the show as a whole to feel fresh and immediate. While much of the story only exists as an intro to the various musical numbers, the combined earnest and sometimes over the top characterizations help to make the production quite enjoyable.

The cast, most playing multiple roles, does quite nicely with the material, with many of the company effectively switching between various accents. Standouts include Hoffman as Miss Pratt and Clarissa; Goldfarb as Alexei (the Russian) and Vassim (the Turk); and Wadia as Andre and Heinz, the latter a member of the nudist colony. Blood is okay as Eve, but she's hamstrung by the virginal blandness of the part and never really gets a chance to break through as she should. As for the various girls of the finishing school, their characters are also somewhat limited, though Amy Jo Jackson is fine as the German student Bertha.

The score, which Porter called his best effort for the stage, is quite fun indeed, ranging from ballads to more bouncy numbers. Great credit must go to Frederick Alden Terry for his music arrangements and orchestrations, and to Pomerantz for his choreographic work, all of which help to make the different numbers come sprightly alive. Among the song highlights are "The Boyfriend Back Home" wonderfully delivered by Henrietta (Sara Jayne Blackmore), another of Eve's former finishing school classmates; "Dizzy Baby" and "You're Too Far Away", both quiet ballads sung by the waiting at home Oliver; and the more risqué "Experiment", sung by the girls upon graduation; and "Red Hot and Blue", sung by Pidge (Laura Cook), another of Miss Pratt's recent graduates, and the girls who work in a Paris nightclub. There's also the cute number "Ruins", warbled by a group of British tourists in Greece. Unfortunately, the score is limited by the awkwardness of the book, revised though it may be. Porter may have thought quite highly of his work here, but in terms of melding the score and story as compared to such other Porter vehicles as Anything Goes or Kiss Me Kate, Nymph Errant is nowhere in the same league.

As mentioned above, Pomerantz handles the directing chores nicely, making the numerous scenes and situations move from one to the other as quickly as possible without feeling rushed, and also allowing the performers to take their roles as far as they need for maximum effect. Also deserving of mention is the fine work by scenic designer Brian Prather, who uses basically one set to recreate all the various locations in the story. There's also a great use of props to create the atmosphere for a desert scene. Lighting by Cory Pattak is fine, and the sound design by Eric Madison is superb.
Costumes by Whitney Locher all work well for the periods and places depicted. The penultimate scene in a Parisian nightclub, which brings most of the show's characters together again, another of many referred to coincidences in the show, is well handled.

Although one of the characters is glaringly absent, leaving a plot threat hanging which perhaps should not be thus. The final scene also contains an enjoyable sense of closure and naughtiness; showing, as Porter loved to do, the sometimes wild, hidden sides of the most ordinary and unassuming people.

A very pleasant look at a long-lost musical gem, one hopes Nymph Errant will not soon slip into obscurity again and that it will also be recorded for succeeding generations to enjoy.

Cole Porter's Nymph Errant

Featuring: Sara Jayne Blackmore (Henrietta), Jennifer Blood (Eve), Andrew Brewer (Oliver, Ben), Natalie E. Carter (Aunt Ermyntrude, Haidee), Laura Cooke (Pidge), Abe Goldfarb (Pithers, Alexei, Ferdinand, Vassim), Cady Huffman (Miss Pratt, Clarissa, Mrs. Bamberg, Professor Krauthammer), Amy Jo Jackson (Bertha), Aubrey Sinn (Madeline) Sorab Wadia (Andre, Heinz, Constantine, Ali)

James Bassi (Conductor/Piano)
Bruce Doctor (Drums/Percussion)
Josh Johnson (Reeds)
Dennis Michael Keefe (Bass)
Yury Shubov (Violin)

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Adapted & with New Libretto by Rob Urbinati
Based on the Original Novel by James Laver
and the Original Libretto by Romney Brent

Scenic Design: Brian Prather
Costume Design: Whitney Locher
Lighting Design: Cory Pattak
Sound Design: Eric Madison
Musical Director James Bassi
Stage Manager: Emily Ballou        
Music Arrangements & Orchestrations: Frederick Alden Terry
Director & Choreographer: Will Pomerantz
Presented by Prospect Theater Company

Theatre Row Studios
410 West 42nd Street
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 minutes, one intermission
Closed: July 29, 2012

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