nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
July 11, 2012
There was a long-running gag on the sitcom Seinfeld that involved the fake film "Rochelle, Rochelle," subtitled "a young girl's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk." If you're a follower of the Seinfeld show, you know that at one point of the series, "Rochelle, Rochelle" was turned into a stage musical starring Bette Midler. I relay this anecdote because I frequently thought of "Rochelle, Rochelle" while watching Will Pomerantz's production of Cole Porter's 1933 musical Nymph Errant at the Clurman Theatre. Using a revised libretto by Rob Urbinati from Romney Brent's original, Nymph Errant, a production of Prospect Theater Company, can just as easily be subtitled "A young girl's strange, erotic journey from Switzerland to Oxford."
By many accounts, the original 1933 libretto is basically unsuitable for production today, due at the very least to its quaintness, yet the score is Porter at his most sexually charged (which actually seems like it would fit right in today). He considered it his favorite—a tough feat considering how excellent his later works, namely Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate, are. Generally well-received in London upon its premiere (starring Gertrude Lawrence), the musical never made it to New York until the early 1980s, perhaps because it was too English, perhaps because of a fear that its daring nature—a musical about a liberated woman, with no romantic male lead in sight—would turn audiences off.
Urbinati keeps most of the original score—which features tunes including "Experiment," the bawdy "The Physician," and the particularly beautiful "It's Bad for Me"—rearranges it, and actually adds a few numbers (including "Red, Hot, and Blue," which was the title song from a different musical), which pads an already dense, already over-long show. His adaptation still focuses on Eve (Jennifer Blood), newly graduated from her Swiss finishing school, who decides to explore the world, though this time it's to delay her marriage to her gardener suitor back home in England (Andrew Brewer). While traveling, Eve takes up—in one way or another—with a host of eccentric characters, from a German nudist to a sheik with a harem—before realizing that her heart belongs with Oliver in Oxford. (Of course, there's still the fact that all of the men Eve, whose libido steadily grows throughout, hooks up with have honorable intentions, even the nudist she finds groping her.)
I'm conflicted as to whether or not this revised script, well intentioned as it is, actually works. It revels in its stupidity, self-effacing joke after self-effacing joke, sacrificing inspired silliness for easy laughs, but it ends up falling flat. While Pomerantz has some clever directorial touches up his sleeve, the cast seems ill at ease with the material and on the stage. A looming, monolithic set piece—an unnecessary wall that resembles a piece of luggage with labels pasted on, designed by Brian Prather—takes up so much space that the playing area is minute, and there's no room to move without banging into a lighting instrument. What little choreography there is (also by Pomerantz) seems under-rehearsed.
It's hard to fault individual aspects of a production that just doesn't seem ready for prime time. There's no question that over the course of the run, the timing will pick up, the 10-member cast will find the laughs without pushing as far as they did, and the kinks will be ironed out. Some already have well-defined characters, like Amy Jo Jackson as a butch German lesbian named Berthe and Tony winner Cady Huffman as a variety of vamps. Blood, an earnest lead, has a very pretty voice and will no doubt grow more comfortable as the run continues.
Whitney Locher's costumes ingeniously solve a scene in a German nudist colony where everyone is supposed to be naked, and elements of Prather's set that involve tongue-and-cheek miniature models are delicious. Most notable, however, are the boffo orchestrations by Frederick Alden Terry played by a tight 5-member jazz band. Porter's great score is treated with the respect it deserves.