Friday, July 13, 2012

Off Broadway: Nymph Errant

Andrew Brewer, Amy Jo Jackson, Aubrey Sinn, Sorab Wadia and Laura Cook in NYMPH ERRANT.  Photo by Lee Wexler, Images for Innovation
Near the end of what is generally considered to be Cole Porter’s sexiest and most sophisticated show, Nymph Errant, currently being revived by the Prospect Theater Company at the Clurman Theatre on West 42nd Street, Evangeline (Jennifer Blood) describes the provenance of the plumber’s jacket she is wearing (and, in the process, recaps the entire show up to that point) by declaring:

"It was given to me by an American who liberated me from a Turkish harem after I was sold into white slavery when a Greek carpet merchant was killed in a war to whom I had been bequeathed by an Italian Count who rescued me from a predatory German nudist who saved me from starving to death with a suicidal Russian who brought me to Paris when Andre abandoned me…..”

Sounds pretty exciting and entertaining, right?

It isn’t.

To be sure, Nymph Errant does address such taboo subjects (at least taboo by the standards of 1933 when the show was first produced in London) as prostitution, lesbianism, nudity, white slavery, and sexual experimentation.  But it requires more than just a sexy or sophisticated theme to make for a good show. It also requires an interesting plot (without which you don’t have a play but a revue), and the adventures of Evangeline, an innocent graduate of a Swiss finishing school seeking to lose her virginity, are no more interesting than are the perils of Pauline.  Too, it requires at least a modicum of character development, surely more than the two dimensional caricatures provided here.  And it requires a combination of a hummable, if not memorable, score and some catchy or creative lyrics which, despite Cole Porter’s claim that this was his best score (by which he may simply have meant that it was his sexiest) the lyrics and score of Nymph Errant really don’t hold a candle to such Porter classics as Anything Goes, Can Can, or Kiss Me Kate.  Indeed, I believe it was the weakness of Nymph Errant’s original music and lyrics which prompted the producers of this show to interpolate four songs from other Porter works – Red, Hot and Blue from Red, Hot and Blue, Dizzy Baby from Paris, and The Boyfriend Back Home and Paree, What Did You Do to Me from Fifty Million Frenchmen into this show; they were certainly right to have done so since those four songs clearly are among the best musical numbers of the current production.

In other words, I really don’t think much of the original show itself and I can readily understand why it never made it to Broadway, why it took 50 years for it to make it to the United States at all (it received its off Broadway premiere in New York in 1982) and why it has been revived so infrequently ever since.  It is just not a very good show; certainly not up to the standards of so much else of Cole Porter’s work.

But having declared my disappointment in the original show, what is to be said of the cast of this particular production?  Well, that is a wholly different matter: in short, this cast is terrific and they are not at all to be blamed for any shortcomings in the material they have been given to work with.

Jennifer Blood, who reminded me a bit of Sarah Jessica Parker, sings beautifully and plays the role she has been given with an infectious innocence.  Aubrey Sinn as Madeline (the sexy French girl), Laura Cook as Pidge (the Italian go-getter), Amy Jo Jackson as Bertha (the German lesbian sports enthusiast), and Sara Jane Blackmore as Henrietta (the American girl next door from Yonkers) were wonderful in their roles as Evangeline’s finishing school classmates whose post-graduation paths coincidentally intersect with hers time after time.  And their voices were magnificent; in fact, I thought that the diminutive Sara Jane Blackman’s rendition of The Boyfriend Back Home was the high point of the show.

Abe Goldfarb and Sorab Wadia deserve considerable praise too for their portrayals of the eight different characters (Pithers, Alexei, Ferdinand, Vassim, Andre, Heinz, Constantine, and Ali) who played such important and disparate roles in Evangeline’s quest to rid herself of her innocence (though if truth be told the distinctions among them were sometimes difficult to discern).  And mention must be made of Natalie E. Carter, the one black member of the cast who didn’t let that minor quirk of melanin prevent her from being sold into white slavery as Haidee or of portraying Evangeline’s Aunt Ermyntrude.  And she sure could belt out a song!

So there you have it.  Nymph Errant may not be much of a play per se but this production does allow a number of very talented actors to take star turns singing several of Cole Porter’s lesser tunes and a few of his better ones.  And for many of you, that may just be enough.    

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