One of the great things about getting down to New York City as frequently as I do now is having the opportunity to catch revivals of obscure shows at some of the Off-Broadway non-profit theaters. We really don't get many chances to see Knickerbocker Holiday or Strike Up the Band, so it's a real treat when the York Theatre Company or Musicals Tonight trots one of them out for public airing.
Recently, I was able to see Nymph Errant at the Prospect Theater Company, as well as New Girl in Town at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Although neither production was particularly satisfying, that doesn't detract in the least from the fact that these companies are doing musical-theater fans a tremendous service by bringing these works back to New York City for the first time in 30 years and 50 years, respectively.
Nymph Errant is a Cole Porter show that to date has never played Broadway. It premiered in London in 1933, starring Gertrude Lawrence and featuring choreography by a young Agnes de Mille. The show didn't make it to New York until 1982, and the score wasn't recorded until 1989. The Prospect Theater mounted the production in question in conjunction with the New York Music Theater Festival (Nymph, NYMF - get it?). This production features a new libretto by Rob Urbinati, based on the original by Romney Brent. Most of the songs are from the original show, although there are a few interpolations from Fifty Million Frenchmen ("The Boyfriend Back Home," "Paree, What You Did to Me") and Paris ("Dizzy Baby"), as well as the title number from Red, Hot and Blue.
The plot of Nymph Errant is fairly scandalous, particularly for 1933, and concerns a young English woman who graduates from finishing school in France and, rather than heading home to her fiancé, heads off on a trans-continental trek, looking for opportunities to misbehave. It's clear that Urbinati is aiming for something madcap and deliciously naughty, but many of his jokes have the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and the whole affair comes off as alternately grating and tame. The Cole Porter score has some nifty little numbers in it, particularly "You're Too Far Away" and "Experiment," but nothing with the nimble tunefulness for which he would later become rightly celebrated.
The direction and choreography by Will Pomerantz is a bit of a conundrum. Pomerantz makes some seemingly smart choices, including a modular set comprising a series of travel trunks, and a neat device in which the juvenile - played with a charming, knowing smile by Andrew Brewer - seemingly follows his ingenue throughout her travels and travails. But Pomerantz also includes some genuinely inscrutable business, including having the female chorus members strip down to their underclothes after the opening number and playing most of the rest of the show in their scanties. At the end of the show, during the inevitable wedding, the bride and groom take their vows in their underwear as well. As to what this was supposed to mean, I can only speculate. Or rather, I've tried, to no avail.
Despite Urbinati's new book and Pomerantz's directorial concept - or, perhaps, because of them - Nymph Errant never bubbles up into the frothy production that the team no doubt was aiming for. Which left in the lurch a cast of mostly talented performers, including Jennifer Blood as the titular nymph, and Tony-winner Cady Huffman in a variety of roles, not all entirely suited to her charm and talent.
Faring only slightly better on the rediscovered-works front is New Girl in Town at the Irish Repertory Theatre. The show was originally little more than a star vehicle for Gwen Verdon, and an opportunity for Bob Fosse to showcase Verdon in as many show-stopping numbers as possible. (One number, a ballet in which the Verdon character recalls her past as a prostitute, was famously cut by the producers after the number caused a scandal out of town.)
Also, New Girl in Town is a bit of an odd duck, and never really seems to find its central tone. The show is a musical adaptation of Anna Christie by Eugene O'Neill. As you can imagine, a musical based on an O'Neill play is unlikely to make for a lighthearted musical comedy. (Although O'Neill's one upbeat work, Ah, Wilderness!, would become Take Me Along a few years after New Girl in Town premiered.) But New Girl in Town, at least in the slightly altered form in which the Irish Rep is performing the piece, doesn't have enough gravitas to really qualify as a musical play, along the lines of Show Boat or Carousel.
Under the direction of Charlotte Moore, this production of New Girl in Town comes off forced. There's not a genuinely believable performance to be found here, although there are certainly some top-notch performers, including Margaret Loesser Robinson as Anna, and Danielle Ferland as Marthy, a role originated by Thelma Ritter. But even Robinson and Ferland come off affected, although flashes of verisimilitude occasionally break though. In the role of Anna's suitor, Patrick Cummings seems especially artificial, though he does come off far better when he's singing. Cummings' Irish accent sounded particularly false, as did the Swedish accent of Cliff Bemis as Anna's father.
On the plus side, the production design (sets by James Morgan, costumes by China Lee, ligfhting by Mary Jo Dondlinger) features some rather effective atmospheric elements, particularly during the scenes at sea. And the score by first-time Broadway composer/lyricist Bob Merrill has tremendous melodic appeal, particularly in the lovely "Did You Close Your Eyes?," which features elements that seem to presage Merrill's finest score, that of Carnival!.
But, again, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the Prospect Theater Company and the Irish Rep for giving us a chance to see these historic but mostly forgotten shows. Perversely, they've also given us the opportunity to see why the shows have been forgotten in the first place.