Ask a typical lover of musical theatre which score Cole Porter might have considered to be his best and you'll most likely hear suggestions of Anything Goes or Kiss Me, Kate. And if you asked which book Porter considered the best he had to work with you'd probably hear the same two responses. Of course, under-appreciated works such as Out of This World and The New Yorkers might be thrown into the mix, and given his love for the city of Paris, he might have thought his best work went into Fifty Million Frenchmen, Paris, Can-Can or DuBarry was a Lady. But the surprising answer to both questions is his rarely-revived 1933 West End musical Nymph Errant, now receiving only its second New York production courtesy of The Medicine Show Theatre.
James Laver's identically titled novel was barely a year old when producer Charles B. Cochran, noting the book's commercial success, critical praise and harsh damnation among moralists, thought it a perfect property for Cole Porter and actor/writer/director/fabulous socialite Romney Brent to adapt for the stage as a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence. Brent himself directed and discovered that a former sweetheart of his, Margaret de Mille, had a sister, Agnes, who was a fledgling dancer/choreographer so he invited her to join the creative team.
In its typically madcap story, Lawrence played a young Englishwoman, fresh from Swiss finishing school heading back home to Oxford. But keeping in mind her progressive teacher's advice that she "experiment" through life, she takes several detours on the arms of an international parade of questionable gentlemen, leaving each one when she finds his intentions are entirely honorable. When she finally returns to Oxford, frustratingly chaste, the authors serve up a delicious ending spoofing D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, still popular at the time.
Though it ran a healthy (for its time) 154 performances in London, Nymph Errant never made it to Broadway, due to illness on Ms. Lawrence's part, and perhaps a feeling that its sexually aggressive and independent female lead, without any central male romantic counterpart, would not seem attractive to American audiences. The show remained unproduced in New York until its 1982 premiere at Equity Library Theatre. The Medicine Show's production reveals, if not an undiscovered classic, a fun, wacky farce with a talented and strong singing ensemble cast.
Porter's score contains no standards, though there's the familiar "It's Bad For Me" and one of his flashier list songs, "The Physician" ("He went through wild ecstatics / When I showed him my lymphatics"). Although he'd certainly had his share of hits by the time Nymph Errant premiered (Anything Goes was still a year away, but "Night and Day" was introduced in the previous season's Gay Divorce), it was still a time when he was writing many of his lyrics specifically to amuse his society friends who would laugh uproariously at references that may leave today's listeners in the dark. He would eventually confess, "Sophisticated lyrics are more fun but only for myself and about eighteen other people, all of whom are first-nighters anyway. Polished, urbane and adult playwriting in the musical field is strictly a creative luxury." Perhaps that's the reason why a song spoofing cross-dressing author George Sand, was replaced during the West End run with a tune about the more familiar "Cazanova". (Fortunately, The Medicine Show's production includes both songs, grandly belted by the engaging Bridget Harvey.) The infamous "Sweet Nudity", cut from the original production when Cochran made a deal with the theatre censors to remove a scene set in a German nudist colony in exchange for allowing the rest of the show to remain as is, has happily been restored with a simple, but very effective staging.
Director Barbara Vann has added a few Porter songs from other shows to the evening, presumably to showcase more cast members who would otherwise have little to do. Appearing herself in two juicy comic turns, Vann provides herself a chance to be delightfully silly soloing "I'm Unlucky at Gambling". Also, I assume to give the male principles a chance to sing (As written, the women truly dominate this musical.), three songs which were solos for Ms. Lawrence in the original have been turned into duets. Though the fellows who benefit from this division all do fine jobs, it unfortunately gives us less time to savor the cool effervescence of Sarah Engelke in the leading role. Playing straight for a carnival of wildly farcical characters, Engelke's underplaying of the Porter/Romney wit fits perfectly into the tiny theatre. With a half-smile or a gentle eye-brow lift punctuating her lines, she is a model of casual charm.
The 1930's, of course, was a time of global tension which would eventually lead to the Second World War, and the Broadway and West End musicals of that decade were often steeped in political satire. Though its plot was not particularly political, Nymph Errant, written for an English audience, reflected the decade's intense nationalism and suspicion of foreigners with ethnic stereotypes and racial humor. To their credit, The Medicine Show has not removed any of that material which, although offensive to modern audiences, was generally accepted in its day. To quote their program, "We left its 1930's racism intact because of historical interest and warning -- and because it gives a little comfort that some things may be changing for the better. Rapid-fire badinage and edgy humor were hallmarks of the times." The audience I attended with did in fact laugh at many of the race-based jokes, but one line in particular seemed to go too far and received a loud negative reaction. To cap off the evening, a hilariously staged (by Kevin Clayborn) rendition of "Let's Do It", from an earlier Porter show, was used as a grand finale. Keeping in the spirit of not covering up the ugliness of the past, the original lines of the song's first refrain, containing racial slurs we would thankfully not hear played for humor in a modern musical, were kept as they were when first sung in 1928.
With Encores!, The York Theatre Company and Musicals Tonight! all presenting several staged readings of older musicals every season, it's easy to forget that in its 34 year history The Medicine Show has produced 13 revivals of rarely-performed musicals such as Red, Hot and Blue, The Happiest Girl in the World and Hooray for What?. Their Nymph Errant is a small, but spirited reminder of a day when musical theatre served the same purpose now provided by Saturday Night Live or a Dennis Miller rant.
Nymph Errant runs through February 15. For more information visit medicineshowtheatre.org
For Michael Dale's "mad adventures of a straight boy living in a gay world" visit dry2olives.com