Reviewed by Will Stackman
Florence Foster Jenkins, the legendary tone-deaf diva, is remembered as the phenomena who sold out tickets to her last concert, her one and only appearance at Carnegie Hall, in two hours. New York and London playwright, Stephen Temperley has resurrected her life in an affectionate comedy, Souvenir; a Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. The play combines her concert career with the parallel ambitions of her faithful accompanist. Awarding soprano, Leigh Barrett tackles the challenge of making this music-obsessed socialite likable while reproducing Jenkins' off-key and arrhythmic singing style without permanently destroying her own vocal chords. IRNE winner Will McGarrahan employs his experienced comic timing and keyboard skills to become Cosme McMoon, an erstwhile songwriter in the life, who narrates their association from 1927 to her death in 1944, the year of her final concert. She was 78.
Since there is very little documented concerning how they actually worked together, Temperley was free to construct a entertainment which imagines the growing professional affection between the aging socialite and the younger ambitious member of the smart set. Her recordings--which actually did quite well--show McMoon's skill at trying to follow her wayward voice and providing some sense of rhythm. McMoon was so self-effacing that there's even a rumor that he was actually pianist/conductor Edwin McArthur who later worked with world class soprano Kirsten Flagstad.
The author starts his imaginary chronicle, with McMoon working at a supper club sometime after the war, reminiscing of how he, trying to begin a songwriting career by supporting himself as an accompanist, met Madame Jenkins. He's cajoled into accompanying her for her first charity concert in the ballroom of the Ritz-Carleton, where she lived. As the years pass, marked changes in Madame's ensembles, carefully designed by David Costa-Cabral, McMoon grows to admire her love of music as an ideal, despite being frustrated by her almost unbelievable lack of musicality. He almost becomes reconciled with his own lack of recognition.
Director Spiro Veloudos, who's worked both principals before, has developed a heartfelt comedy from the relationship. He taps Barrett's own dedication to her own career which is distinguished not by disappearance into each role, but to using her own considerable stage presence as the basis for roles ranging from the tragic heroine of Sondheim's "Passion" to the older woman in "Pal Joey". On the other hand, McGarrahan, Boston's consummate supporting actor uses his impeccable timing to punctuate both performances while developing a engaging character which does not intrude while moving the action along.
The show is presented on a handsome unit set designed by Skip Curtis, one of the Lyric's former production managers who now works at the ART's Zero Arrow. He's back wooden floor on the Lyric's thrust stage with abstracted painted heavy woodwork arches. The rest of the set includes a small well-tuned grand and a few pieces of good furniture. Together with lighting by Robert Cordella, Lyric's master electrician and designer of a number of shows there, the evening has a remarkable continuity. The highlight of Cabral's costumes are quick change get-ups for FFJ's final concert, based on outfits Jenkins wore over the years, including her infamous angel wings for the "Ave Maria." At the heart of this fantasia, which suggests improvisation, is its exploration of extreme dedication to one's art. Summed by Madame Jenkins herself, who's famously quoted as saying, "Some may say I couldn't sing but no one can say I didn't sing." Or to be slightly more contemporary, "Do your own thing."