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By Judith Cookis Rubens
Considered too racy for Broadway in the 1930s, Cole Porter’s saucy musical “Nymph Errant” was largely forgotten.
Tibbits Summer Theater, with its cleverly staged and choreographed production, valiantly tries to revive the story and music. The result is a wobbly, often strained journey, but, in parts, we get delightfully humorous bits and some catchy tunes.
It’s the simple story of one girl’s romantic and cultural explorations. Englishwoman Evangeline, fresh out of a Swiss finishing school, doesn’t want to return to her aunt’s home in Oxford. She’s ready to travel the world in search of adventure – and men. Her four gal pals – Madeline, a sexy French flirt; Joyce, a reserved English chum; Henrietta, a well-bred American; and Bertha, a loyal, put-upon German – have their own travel plans. But, because this is theater, we run into them again in unexpected places.
Naive heroine Evangeline (also the narrator at times) makes stops in Paris, Venice, Greece, Turkey and England, jumping from the bed of one suitor to the next, each one more of a disappointment. She never notices the sweet Englishman who’s been pining for her since their casual encounter in her school days.
As Evangeline, Amy Lamberti smartly transitions from wide-eyed schoolgirl into disenchanted rebel, tired of being a man’s property. “Bad For Me” is a gem of a song, but Lamberti doesn’t fully commit to giving it the power it deserves. She sadly rushes her songs and fails to project the witty lyrics, which causes audiences to miss the nuanced humor. Her shrill soprano voice can’t conquer ballads like “At Long Last Love,” though Lamberti’s sharp comic flair does elevate fun numbers like “Physician,” about Evangeline’s unrequited crush on her doctor (“My epiglottis filled him with glee/He simply loved my larynx/And went wild about my pharynx/But he never said he loved me”).
Director Charles Burr takes some liberties with the casting, choosing to have actor Richard Baker play all the male roles. This requires lightning-fast costume and accent changes.
It proves a wise choice, as Baker owns the stage from his wild entrances to his powerful vocal solos. Without Baker’s boundless energy and comic talents, things would have dragged interminably. He plays up broad cultural stereotypes for sure – slick Frenchman, angry Russian, uptight Englishman – but it works because they’re all so over-the-top. The most fun are his turns as French star-maker Andre de Croissant; gender-confused Turk, Kassim; and lovesick British nerd, Victor. Even his (ahem) cheeky duet with Evangeline as a German nudist (“Back To Nature”) is silly fun.
This musical, however, truly belongs to the ladies, and the supporting players each get a chance to shine.
Anchoring the group is Kiersten Vorheis, who tackles the older matrons, and delivers Porter’s tunes as they should be heard – with presence and power. She has a winning early number, “The Cocotte,” as an aging Parisian courtesan. And she’s perfect as Miss Pratt, the girls’ former teacher who encourages their travels.
Angelia Golden breathes great life into all-American Henrietta. Though her song, “Georgia Sand,” is a laborious story-within-a-song, she performs it effortlessly.
Katherine Lozen makes a fun transformation from shy schoolgirl to sassy lush with her song “The Great Indoors.” Aisling Halpin (who also choreographs) plays French flirt Madeline, giving her sex appeal and a bossy edge. Even Samantha Rey elevates the least fleshed out girl, Bertha, though her voice falters in “Solomon.”
Burr’s staging tries to keep most of Porter’s original songs. With a dozen numbers in Act One, things drag, but Halpin’s clever choreography helps pep it up. Whether it’s tap dancing on suitcases, rhythmically scrubbing floors, or creatively undressing behind set pieces, this cast is in sync and full of energy.
Brittany Elias’ creative set design relies on a slip stage behind the actors. Moving 2D images slowly creates a 3D sense of movement to different locales. Take note of a clever, beautifully staged train scene early on. Ethnic costumes – and impressively fast costume switches – help the transitions too.
The title song (“Nymph Errant”), oddly, is one of the least memorable ditties from this musical.
The early “Experiment” – about taking chances and finding yourself -a comes closest to a hit. It holds such promise for a show that meanders and sputters, before finally reviving itself with a fun chorus girl number and a rather safe finale.
Part of the problem is the material. What was risque in the ’30s feels almost dated now. When our heroine realizes no knight in shining armor is going to save her, she seems poised for true independence and growth, only to fall back on a man – albeit a nice one – yet again.
Tibbits Summer Theatre, 14 S. Hanchett St., Coldwater. Wednesday-Saturday through Aug. 18. $10-$27. 517-278-6029. http://www.tibbits.org