Elizabeth Swados, best known for her late-1970s breakthrough musical Runaways and her collaborations with Doonsebury‘s Gary Trudeau, has never rested her pen. Currently she directs the world premiere of her latest musical, The Nomad, at the Flea Theater, and it’s an intense show.
Co-written with Obie winner Erin Courtney, The Nomad is a one-act musical that’s almost entirely sung-through. In just over an hour of evocative, Middle Eastern-influenced song, richly arranged by Kris Kukul, it sweeps through the brief, intense life story of Isabelle Eberhardt, a turn-of-the-20th-century journalist, diarist and restless spirit who converted to Islam, got caught up in the politics of French colonialism in North Africa, and died in a flash flood in Algeria in 1904 at age 27.
The show positions Eberhardt as an Evita-like savior figure to some, as well as a threat to the powers that be. The strong-voiced and charismatic Teri Madonna portrays the Swiss heroine with a shining-beacon, Joan of Arc-like poise. That, together with the narrative’s extreme concision, never lets us get deeply immersed in the character. Important events fly by so that if you blink you miss them: Eberhardt’s mother’s death, her conversion to Islam, her marriage. And the device of having another performer portray Young Isabelle doesn’t pay off.
On the other hand, Swados, Courtney, and choreographer Ani Taj craft powerful songs and scenes even if the events they illustrate aren’t always thoroughly explained. And as the show recovers from a few painfully prosaic lyrics early on, the infectious rhythms of the music and dancing, the gratifyingly dense choral arrangements sung by the company, and Madonna’s unfailing aplomb slowly combine to cast an exotic spell, aided by Lydia Fine’s flowing costumes and props, Daisy Long’s cool desert lighting, and a tight band led by Trevor Bachman. (A special nod goes to woodwind player Ryan Kerr and bass guitarist Ethan O’Reilly).
The Nomad expands out of its thin narrative and characterizations with sheer artistic energy, solid performances, and, not least, commitment to the highly stylized presentation. Audiences prepared to accept the last should enjoy the show. It’s at the Flea Theater through April 6.