Originally produced in 1933 in London’s West End as a comedic star vehicle for the immensely popular English stage actress Gertrude Lawrence, Nymph Errant is based upon a bestselling book of the same name. It never opened on Broadway, most likely because of its taboo subject matter of feminine independence and sexuality. And perhaps British humor doesn’t always jibe with American tastes. In fact, it never made it to this side of the Atlantic until nearly a half-century later when it premiered in Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1982.
It is said that it’s Cole Porter’s favorite score, and that’s a little hard to understand if one considers his amazing body of work. One suspects it has more to do with the lyrical freedom he was given writing for the UK theatre audience than the story itself, which involves one woman’s (Evangeline Edwards) lighthearted global odyssey to lose her virginity and the international cast of eccentrics she encounters along the way.
It certainly has more than a few songs that favorably compare to his better-known standards, including “Experiment,” “The Physician,” and “How Could We Go Wrong.” But Romney Brent’s narrative, as clever as the dialogue may be, is so haphazard and populated with so many cardboard characters that it serves primarily as a showcase for the Porter tunes than anything else. By definition, that’s closer to a “revue” than a “book musical,” which is perfectly fine unless one has an expectation for something more. As such, ultimately one left the venue feeling somewhat dissatisfied.
The play is set in exotic locales, from Paris to Athens, but the minimalistic set design does not adequately evoke a sense of time or place. To make up for it, however, are the fabulous costume creations of Louise Jarmilowicz, which accurately depict the cultural trappings of the various peoples and locations. Her authentic high waistline, midi length, formfitting gowns worn by Sharon Rietkerk (Evangeline Edwards), among others, are outstanding, and she outdoes herself with the splendid, colorful Turkish fashions of the beautifully realized “Harem” sequence of the second act.
As if to compensate for the stereotypical, thinly drawn characters, the talented supporting ensemble paint their portrayals with broadly comic strokes, and for the most part it’s a successful strategy. It must be added, however, because each actor is called upon to play several roles, it can become difficult to discern which one they’re playing for any given scene.
As is typical of this company’s productions, standouts are too numerous to mention, but recognition must go to Michael Cassidy, Kelly Sanchez, Erin-Kate Whitcomb, and Alexandra Kaprielian, who inhabit their many characters with exceptional skill and alacrity. Ms. Kapielian in particular does a marvelous solo song and tap dance number (“Casanova”) that is among the many highlights (choreographed by Lee Ann Payne).
And a scene-stealing nod must go to Nancy Sale’s winning turn as the seemingly oblivious, hilariously funny Aunt Ermyntrude. Bravo!
The casts’ exuberance, however, does backfire in one important respect: they effectively drown out the show’s lead. Parenthetically, it must be said that Ms. Rietkerk possesses an uncanny comic sensibility and captivating stage presence that’s reminiscent of a young Lucille Ball – she’s that good! And unlike Ms. Ball, she’s also a gifted soprano, and her renditions of “How Could We Be Wrong” and “The Physician” are simply superb.
However, because of the over-the-top antics of everyone around her, she’s essentially both star and straight woman, and thus her role calls for a contrasting subtlety. And although her performance is undoubtedly true to the part, it’s a bit too subdued – even to the point that her spoken lines sometimes did not quite reach the back row of the small, sold-out house. That being said, a stronger, defter hand at direction could easily adjust and remedy the problem.
42nd Street Moon, once again, must be congratulated for giving theatergoers a rare opportunity to experience one of the early efforts of a true genius who would go on to compose some of the most memorable contributions to the pantheon of American popular music.
3.5 out of stars (Good)
42nd Street Moon
Directed by Greg MacKellan
The Eureka Theatre
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Romney Brent
October 5 – 23, 2011