What can you say about a Cole Porter musical that includes a majority of songs recognized by hardly anyone in the audience? How do you critique a show which features wonderful talent, but is ultimately mind-numbingly boring? And who can tell me why it was a good idea to present Nymph Errant at this time?
The plot, such as it is, revolves around a young English girl, Eve (Jennifer Blood), and her finishing school friends, Madeline (Aubrey Sinn), Henrietta (Sara Jayne Blackmore), Pidge (Laura Cook), and Bertha (Amy Jo Jackson). They say goodbye to their mentor, Miss Pratt (Cady Huffman), and head out into the world, where they encounter a succession of ludicrous adventures.
A lot of the hoped-for laughs revolve around Eve’s attempts to lose her virginity. This ongoing gag falls especially flat when Eve is sold into “white slavery,” and yearns not only to have sex with the sultan who bought her, but also with the eunuch guarding the harem. Blood is a charming actress with a lovely voice. She looks a lot like Sarah Jessica Parker, and has the same wistfulness and delicate body type. To see her placed in such an unsavory scene is painful.
In fact, there’s so much in this play that’s cringe worthy. Why, oh why, does the song “Plumbing” even need to flood the stage? The basic problem is that the play is not camp enough to be really silly, and not a good enough musical to be enjoyed on its own merits.
There are moments of brilliance, including the placing, on stage, of a pack of Camel cigarettes to indicate a desert; and the use of tiny figures to represent how far away a young man feels from his beloved. Abe Goldfarb strikes the right note of maniacal goofiness playing multiple roles. He’s so off the wall, we can relax and have fun.
Also enthusiastically throwing themselves into more than one part are Natalie E. Carter, who delivers the requisite belt number we’ve come to expect from every abundant African-American woman who appears on the stage of a musical (will someone please write a divine ballad instead?); Sorab Wadia as a succession of skeevy foreigners (nice ad lib when the phony mustache fell off); and Andrew Brewer, who comes across as though he just fell off the hay wagon, and exhibits a sweet quality which adds to the production.
Cady Huffman is a Tony Award winner, and much beloved by theater fans. She does a gallant job here, and it’s not her fault that seeing her Miss Pratt in tarty stockings during the second act is just plain disconcerting. Personally, I’d rather see her judging Iron Chef America, which she does knowledgably and with great panache.
The Velcro tear-away costumes are clumsy, and the young women cavorting in chemises (and in one case, a bra and panties) aren’t sexy, which is disappointing. In fact, it’s a pretty neat trick to make these attractive, shapely young actresses look dowdy.
Quick aside here: either dump the onstage screen used for changing purposes, or turn it into a sight gag by making it transparent. I was sitting all the way to the left in the audience, saw pretty clearly the machinations taking place, and found the device distracting. And while I hate the skimpy tunics which were slipped on to indicate nudity, what really annoyed me was the lack of attention to detail. Note to costume department: not a lot of German men were circumcised in the early 1930’s, which “Heinz” is gonna find out, to his dismay, come the later 1930’s in Germany.
The writing isn’t exactly brilliant. To base a bit, not to mention a number, on the idea that “cocotte” (prostitute) isn’t the same as “coquette” (flirt) is lame. The lesbian jokes, including calling a gay woman “butch,” aren’t amusing now, if they ever were. If Eve is hungry, why not just ask her friend Pidge for food?
When the show works, there are moments of enjoyment. In addition to Jennifer Blood, I was very impressed with Amy Jo Jackson . She’s got a strong, amazing voice, and brought an appealing amount of heart to her sturdy German character. Sara Jayne Blackmore, as an American pining for her man, knocks “The Boyfriend Back Home” out of the ballpark. Laura Cook, who could be Anne Hathaway’s sister, lights up the stage with her energy. The line “From Poland to polo in one generation” is a classic. “Red, Hot and Blue” is performed well, and it’s reassuring to hear a familiar tune.
Director/choreographer Will Pomerantz makes a valiant effort to keep the production upbeat and fast paced, but it’s just too long, and there are too many people on stage most of the time. Recycling the same boarding school chums over and over again becomes disorienting when they are sometimes themselves, sometimes not. In the harem scene, Eve and Bertha retain their identities, but the others become wailing slaves. Are the chorus girls in Pidge’s club her old friends? After all, their schoolmarm is now part of the cabaret. A simple device helps ease the confusion: when the actresses are acting as chorus, not characters, put them in distinctive wigs. This works beautifully when Natalie E. Carter is playing Eve’s Aunt Ermyntrude.
Why resurrect this old 1933 chestnut now? Rob Urbinati, who both adapted the music and wrote a new libretto, felt it deserved an airing, as did the adventurous Prospect Theater. For those who yearn to hear every Cole Porter song in the context of a play, rejoice! But please, not too much. The night I attended, there was a very obvious claque in the back row. Guys, when the audience is somewhat sparse, and people are responding honestly to what’s going on, whooping, wildly applauding, and emitting loud guffaws doesn’t work to whip up the crowd. It seems forced, phony, and ultimately, a little sad. I get why you’re doing it; I’ve done it myself. Let’s just not do it anymore.
It’s said that Cole Porter stated “I consider Nymph Errant to be the best score I ever wrote.” What was he drinking, and where can I get some?
Photos by Lee Wexler, Images for Innovation, from top:
1. Company of Nymph Errant
2. Andrew Brewer and Jennifer Blood
3. Jennifer Blood and Sorab Wadia
4. Cady Huffman
5. Amy Jo Jackson, Aubrey Sinn, Sorab Wadia, Sara Jayne Blackmore and Laura Cook
Prospect Theater Company
Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.