March 3, 2015

Shoulders back, chin out, the young woman in the fez is bemused, defiant, yet intrigued by her circumstances. “I am dead; this is the state of things,” Isabelle Eberhardt sings at the start of The Nomad, and she seems curiously willing to make the most of it. That spirit of adventure fuels this lucid, fast-moving dream of a musical, with book and lyrics by Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney, composed and directed by Ms. Swados in its premiere at the Flea Theater. Marrying Middle Eastern sounds with musical theater tradition, it recounts the vagabond, quicksilver life of Eberhardt, a writer and a romantic who was born in Switzerland in 1877 and died in a flash flood in Algeria in 1904. The many contradictions of that short, strange life make surprising sense in Teri Madonna’s voracious and passionate Isabelle, a European woman who finds freedom in North Africa, donning male clothing, assuming male privileges. A fervent convert to Islam, she nonetheless drinks, smokes kef and is no sexual wallflower.