The original production of Nymph Errant played in London in 1933 and starred Gertrude Lawrence, who made a moderate success in it when she sang Cole Porter’s racy song “The Physician.” It never transferred to New York, mainly because it was too lavish to be accommodated in those early years of the Depression. The book of that show has long been felt to be hopelessly dated, even by Porter himself, who advised in 1957 that it be re-written if Nymph was ever to be produced again. Almost 80 years after the London production with Lawrence, Nymph Errant finally gets a hearing in New York at the Clurman Theatre (through July 29), with a rewritten book by Rob Urbinati and minimal changes to the score. When Urbinati tried Nymph out in 2001 in Colorado Springs, he interpolated some of Porter’s better-known songs into the score, but this time he was advised by the Porter estate to just let it stand on its own.
The result is a zesty museum piece concerning the adventures of a girl called Eve (Jennifer Blood) and her encounters with variously stereotyped foreigners as she travels from country to country in Europe in an increasingly desperate attempt to lose her virginity, a lurid theme that is made palatable by the cool sophistication of Porter’s music and lyrics. The most disturbing song by far is “Red, Hot and Blue,” in which Porter offers up a checklist of classical composers who are being buried by the hot syncopation of popular music. This song comes to a climax here when the singer (Laura Cook) actually pours black ink on a tiny white bust of Beethoven!
There are lots of sharp, inventive choices like that in Will Pomerantz’s direction, and these choices re-invigorate a lot of the material. What’s missing, however, is that air of heartless, naughty sophistication that Lawrence had when she sang “The Physician.” Instead, the hard-working members of this ensemble put the songs over by cheery energy alone and miss a lot of the nuances of the lyrics. When Natalie E. Carter sings “The Physician,” she doesn’t quite catch the song’s dirtiness or slight undertow of sadness, though she does much better on the rousing “Solomon,” where she’s backed by a bunch of amusingly whiny harem girls. Top-lined Cady Huffman, who played Ulla in the smash of smashes Broadway production of The Producers ten years ago, is here confined to a succession of hearty bits and character songs and the show’s theme tune, “Experiment.” There’s a gently filthy section set in a nudist colony with songs like “Back to Nature” and “Sweet Nudity,” and a few songs that feel fairly unnecessary and uninspired, like “Plumbing.” There were no real Porter hits from this show, mainly because it never opened here but also because the songs are very much integrated into the flimsy narrative. They’re worth a hearing, and Pomerantz does a lot to give them physical life on stage, but this show is finally of more historical than theatrical interest.