I see London, I see France ... I see a lot of underpants in the latest production from TheatreWorks, Cole Porter's Nymph Errant. And bless their hearts.
The plot isn't so terribly heroic -- it's sort of annoying, actually. A group of WASPy girls graduate from a Swiss boarding school and set out to get some experience, taking, instead of a week, an Odyssean year to get home -- in hopes of getting laid, or famous, or both. Along the way they encounter all kinds of misadventures spawned by the central question: Will Evangaline, aka Eve (played by Shannon French), return home a virgin? On the trip, she manages to avoid sex with Andre de Croissant (Daniel Fosha), Fritz the nudist (Jude Bishop), "Count Ferdinand" (also Fosha), yet another mock hero who just happens to show up to sweep Eve out of the nudist camp to take her to Venice, and so on. The annoying part is that it's such a socialite fantasy (the life Porter actually lived) -- so if you can relate, good for you.
The play itself is really cute, and there's a lot of real humor in it. In this neck of the woods especially, it's nice to see people trot out in their underwear in something other than Cabaret.
What's most noticeably missing from the production, however, are a subtle, campy tone and some silky singing that Cole Porter's musical numbers demand. Shannon French's singing style is just too reedy. Instead of projecting out, she uses vibrato all the time, like a smoke screen, and that makes the songs sound right out of the glee club. And as an actor she also plays it a little too straight in numbers like "It's Bad for Me." It would've been nice to see her really lose it on stage and push the absurdity of the character.
As an ensemble, the boarding school girls' voices and their relationships to one another just didn't seem thought out well enough. Given the number of songs they had together, they needed to have their voices in balance. Maybe it was staging that made the early numbers sound shrill -- like a bunch of skinny white girls, which they are. Rachel Gaveltz (as Bertha) was a notable exception with her velvety and unaffected voice that absolutely boomed through "When Love Comes Your Way" and "Solomon." Perhaps Gaveltz could have been positioned differently in the ensemble to balance the sound. Nicole Benton (as Haidee Robinson), the only black singer in the production, also gave a perfectly sultry performance of "The Physician."
Once again, Nancy Hankin did an extraordinary job with the set and lighting. She's got a great eye, and her deco designs perfectly set the mood, and added to the ambience and humor.
Despite its shortfalls, Nymph Errant is completely fun in the way you would expect from Cole Porter -- with a lot of aggregate social commentary couched in the camp to take some stabs at a bunch of pampered kids having a surfacy, bourgeois coming-of-age in Europe. And director Rob Urbinati should be lauded for trying to capture the spirit of the large production in Dwire's cramped quarters.
Nymph Errant is one of TheatreWorks' last productions in Dwire. They'll soon be moving to their new location in the old Compassion International building just down the hill.