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Souvenir: The Odder Couple

The most touching and heartwarming love story currently gracing the Broadway stage tells the tale of a gay male pianist of questionable songwriting talent and a wealthy widow who sings classical recitals despite being tone deaf. No, they're not romantically involved, but in the two character comedy Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, playwright Stephen Temperley not only gives Judy Kaye the vehicle for which she delivers the funniest performance on Broadway (and co-star Donald Corren isn't very far behind her), but he also shows us a relationship full of the kind of mutual affection, respect, protectiveness and patience that we all should be lucky enough to receive. Yes, dear readers... you'll laugh, you'll cry.

Though the play is based on the true story of one of those New York characters that make this town so legendary, the subtitle tells us that the author has taken a few liberties here and there. But the basic story is true. Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy Manhattan widow who adored classical music and loved to entertain with an aria or two at social functions. The fact that she had no ear for pitch and no sense of rhythm didn't keep those in her circle from politely complimenting her on her performances, despite the fact that most of them were desperately trying to hold back their laughter out of respect. During the 1930's and 40's she gave many charity recitals for such a growing fan base that eventually she was signed to a recording contract which led to a sold out engagement at Carnegie Hall.

Temperley paints Mrs. Foster Jenkins as a kind and generous woman; the type that no lady nor gentleman would ever dream of hurting by openly laughing or giving an honest appraisal of her performances. She never seeks personal glory, but sings only for the love of the music and for the opportunity to raise money for good causes. Indeed, tickets for a Florence Foster Jenkins recital (at $2.40 a pop) were, as the playwright puts it, "like gold."

This could easily be a one-joke play making fun of the protagonist's ineptitude, but the heart of the evening lies in the relationship between the singer and her accompanist Cosme McMoon. Although Foster Jenkins had several accompanists during the time of the play (one of whom demanded total anonymity and would only play in public when seated behind a black curtain) Temperley sticks with McMoon, an unknown songwriter who actually did have his work recorded by the soprano and was her accompanist at Carnegie Hall, although it's been said by many that he was using a pseudonym. Young and broke when she offers to hire him to help prepare her first recital, McMoon is flabbergasted by the sounds produced by his prospective employer, but the promise of a good deal of money for very little work, giving him the opportunity to live well and write his own music, keeps him at her side for many years to come. She rewards his loyalty with her truest heartfelt affection.

And though initially the author gets terrific comic milage out of Foster Jenkins' singing, McMoon's reactions and his attempts to somehow mask her flaws without insulting her belief that she is a true coloratura with perfect pitch, it's Cosme's admiration for what she is trying to accomplish, especially when compared with his own lack of success as a composer, that grows with every sour note. It comes to the point where Cosme questions why we would consider one progression of notes to be beautiful and another to be irritating. And though the play is generally light and carefree, there is always the looming fear of what would happen when the lovely lady finally realized people were laughing at her.

When Souvenir opened Off-Broadway at The York Theatre in December, the role of Cosme was played by an accomplished musical director and conductor who was, unfortunately, not up to the task of acting the part, limiting the emotional oomph of the piece. Donald Corren first came into the role in a pre-Broadway engagement at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, giving a performance which allowed director Vivian Matalon and the author a chance to explore the character more fully and shape the evening into tighter, two character piece. It's Cosme who actually has more stage time, being the narrator of the episodic text, and Corren engages the audience with a charming knack for story-telling and self-depreciating wit. His friendly, but eloquent manner and thoughtful delivery gets laughs by simply stating the outlandish facts and trying to keep his composure despite the absurdity surrounding him.

He is a perfect foil for Judy Kaye, who is giving an unforgettable and unique performance, layering Mrs. Foster Jenkins with motherly wisdom, schoolgirl giddiness and a tender heart. Those who see the play will undoubtedly come up with wild and lengthy comparisons to describe the unusual sounds she emits as the musically-challenged artist, but I'll just use one word... brilliant. Not one laugh ever comes at the expense of her character's dignity, even when she's parading across the stage in one of Tracy Christensen's outlandishly tacky costumes or being enthralled by the sound of her own recorded voice as it hacks Mozart's aria for The Queen of the Night to bits. (R. Michael Miller's recital hall set contains a sly reference to Karl Friedrich Sckinkel's famous backdrop for that aria.) She is every audience member's not especially talented kid performing in the school play, and though we may laugh at her singing we can envy the joy she feels in sharing her gift with other. By the time we see Mrs. Foster Jenkins performing excerpts from her Carnegie Hall triumph, it is impossible not to love her and to not feel heartbroken when the canned laughter representing her audience grows louder and louder.

Souvenir, besides being uproariously funny, is also a perfect play for those who choose to see (and hear) the beauty in everything, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Photos of Judy Kaye and Donald Corren by Carol Rosegg

 


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