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Porter's Aged Nymph Goes Astray at Harvard

By Brian R. Hecht

The undergraduate producer and directors of Nymph Errant took a formidable risk when they chose to produce Cole Porter's classic 1933 musical at the Agassiz Theater.

Usually, directors have extensive theatrical precedents to guide them in staging a new version of an old show. And usually, having seen the show before, directors use a standard version as a basis for their own productions.

But because Nymph Errant had never been fully staged in the United States, director Don Carleton and producer Rob Siedlecki had no such precedent. And they do deserve credit for bringing it to an American stage.

Nymph Errant

Music and lyrics by Cole Porter

Book by Romney Brent

Musical direction by Keith Kessler

Directed by Don Carleton and Dave Harnisch

At the Agassiz Theater

January 12 and 13

But despite a noble effort and some excellent individual performances, Carleton and much of the cast fail to provide the production with the energy and originality it needs.

Romeny Brent's script follows Evangeline Edwards--the nymph errant--as she meanders across the Continent, having been encouraged by her boarding school chemistry teacher to "experiment" with different experiences and, inevitably, with different men. Her romantic interests run the gamut from a lecherous French musical director to a sleazy Greek merchant.

In an effort to give an arguably dated script new life, Carleton tried to adapt the show for a "90s audience" by updating some jokes and casting emcees Donovon Barton and Greg Schaffer to host the performance.

Updating a show is legitimate practice, especially since Brent's plot is somewhat cliched and shallow--typical of '30s musicals. But Barton's and Schaffer's delivery of original material is so strong that it overshadows almost everything else in the show--including Porter's likeable score.

The emcees appear ostensibly to introduce the scenes. But most of their jokes are at the expense of the show's weaknesses, often taking pot shots at corny tap dance scenes and cliched characters. And the emcee's performances are invariably much funnier than anything else in the show.

The audience is given no opportunity to appreciate the show for what it could be. Instead, the cast--especially the emcees--seem to be giving a nod and a wink to the audience, saying: "We know this show is silly and dated, but, hey, we're enjoying ourselves."

The tone of self-mockery is reinforced by the inclusion of a "random Cole Porter song" at the beginning of the show. Unfortunately, "Two Little Babes in the Woods" a 1924 Porter composition, is probably the best number in the show, setting unrealistically high expectations for an otherwise dull performance.

The blame for this problem lies not with the performers--who did their best to add spice to the performance--but with the director, for not bringing the rest of the show up to the high standards set by the non-Nymph material.

The performance also suffers from the uneven quality of accents assumed by the players. Good British accents are key to a Porter show, and in Nymph Errant, the accents of the various European characters become equally important. But in this production, many of the accents are forced or nonexistent.

One actress seemed to confuse her British accent with an Elmer Fudd imitation. And Michael Johnson, who delivered an otherwise good performance as a European count, had no detectable accent at all. These inconsistancies colored the entire performance and, by the end of the show, proved to be particularly annoying.

Most of the cast deliver satisfactory, but not extraordinary performances. However, some cast members, including Susan Levine as the Nymph, and Barton, doubling as one of Levine's beaus, are refreshingly good.

The petite Levine delivers an energetic performance, in her spoken lines and especially in her musical numbers. Her reactions to various ghoulish courters--exaggerated facial expressions directed at the audience--are particularly enjoyable.

Levine's strong performance provides a cornerstone to the show, and her constant stage presence frequently saves otherwise dull scenes.

Barton, as the all-American Ben Winthrop (a Harvard graduate) delivers a hilarious performance, also displaying considerable singing and dancing skills in the second act's only show-stopper, "Plumbing." Also notable is Christopher Davidson (a dead ringer for Monty Python's Graham Chapman) as the slimy but good-hearted French director Andre de Croissant.

Many of the solo singing performances are nicely done, but the ensemble numbers almost invariably lack energy. And while Monique Malfitano's choreography of group numbers was original and visually interesting, its execution is often uncoordinated and somewhat amateurish.

The twelve-member orchestra, conducted by Matthew Tap, is exceptionally strong, and provides energy to some otherwise dull musical numbers. Occassional orchestral interjections, rim-shots for bad jokes and a hilarious interplay between trumpeter Roy Groth and emcee Schaffer on the "lip-sync trumpet," add nice color to the performance.

Carleton, Siedlecki and music director Keith Kessler deserve credit for undertaking such an ambitious project. But the production is uninspired, and allows the emcees to upstage even Cole Porter himself. Despite some good individual performances, Nymph Errant goes astray.

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