by Michael Dale
The last time the 1933 West End musical Nymph Errant was revived in New York, the Medicine Show Theatre Company advertised their production with the selling point that they haven’t removed any of the show’s racism. Now, while going to see a racist musical is not exactly my idea of a fun night out, there is a certain historic value to watching older musicals performed with the texts the authors wrote, opposed to the frequent occurrence of slapping their books with labels like “creaky” or “dated” and having contemporary authors make wholesale revisions to transform them into suitable entertainments for modern audiences.
Those with no previous knowledge of Nymph Errant would probably see Prospect Theater Company’s current mounting, with a new book by Rob Urbinati (based on the original and its source), as an enjoyable, small-scale production of a mindlessly fun musical typical of the era. But while Nymph Errant is by no means a lost classic, it’s a much more interesting piece than you would guess just by watching this cute, but edgeless revision.
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 Evangeline, 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 served 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.
Surprisingly, the man who penned the scores of Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate considered this to be his best effort. Though it contains no standards, 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 Porter 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.” The infamous "Sweet Nudity" was 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.
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 by painting the leading lady’s parade of non-lovers with ethnic stereotypes and racial humor.
Urbinati’s new book smoothes out anything that might be considered racially or ethnically insensitive while following the basic outline of Brent’s original, but the musical’s two most familiar moments have been eliminated. “The Physician” has been removed from the Turkish harem scene and taken away from Evangeline, now sung by another character as part of a nightclub act. An even more drastic change is that the sexually aggressive tone of the show has been altered to something more conventionally romantic by having the heroine already knowing her D.H. Lawrence-inspired heartthrob and pledging to be true to him throughout her travels, nixing the final Chatterley punch line. Urbinati even goes as far as to have the fella back home appear to Evangeline as a memory, popping in on occasion to sing choruses of “Dizzy Baby,” a song lifted from the score of Paris.
A handful of other songs from different Porter scores are added, most jarringly the title song from Red, Hot and Blue and Fifty Million Frenchmen’s “Paree, What Did You Do To Me” because they are so closely associated with their original shows. Urbinati also finds room for Nymph Errant’s notoriously cut songs but there’s a bit of reassigning of numbers from one character to another. The new 5-piece orchestrations by Frederick Alden Terry are attractive and lively, though they occasionally stray into a sound that resembles 1940s big band more than 1930s musical theatre.
But patrons with little concern for theatrical alterations should find director/choreographer Will Pomerantz’s bouncy mounting of this jewel box adaptation – that reduces a lavish West End show to an ensemble piece for an energetic cast of 10 – a satisfying diversion. Charming and pretty-voiced Jennifer Blood plays Evangeline as a typically spunky ingénue of the period and Andrew Brewer provides a sturdy romantic presence as her beau. Sorab Wadia and Abe Goldfarb are both continually amusing as an international assortment of over-the-top caricatures, including a French follies producer, a depressed Russian composer a German nudist and Turkish Emir.
Headlining the evening in a variety of roles, and given some of the choicest material, is Tony-winner Cady Huffman, who is particularly winning as the progressive finishing school teacher with a naughty streak. Though the evening could probably do without Urbinati’s monologue where she plays a lovesick stereotypically butch lesbian athlete.
Photos by Lee Wexler: Top: Jennifer Blood and Sorab Wadia; Bottom: Cady Huffman.
After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.