BWW Review: SOUVENIR Redux: A Joyful Noise
A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
Written by Stephen Temperley, Directed by Spiro Veloudos; Music Director, Will McGarrahan; Scenic Design, Skip Curtiss; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Chris Hudacs; Sound Design, David Wilson; Assistant to the Director, Joshua Shelor; Production Stage Manager, Diane McLean; Assistant Stage Manager, Geena M. Forristall
"What matters most is the music you hear in your head." This line attributed to Florence Foster Jenkins expresses a sentiment that may explain why this Manhattan society woman, who could not string together two harmonious notes, fancied herself to be a serious vocal artist. Was she, in fact, deceiving herself, or was her subscription to the previous declaratory statement so complete as to discount reality? According to the story as told by playwright Stephen Temperley in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, we can't really know if she was conning herself or us. However, by the conclusion of the Lyric Stage Company's production, being reprised ten years hence from its first staging by Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos, it truly doesn't matter.
Celebrating his 20th season at the helm of Lyric Stage, Veloudos takes another crack at one of his favorite productions, bringing back Leigh Barrett (Jenkins) and Will McGarrahan (Cosmé McMoon) in their original roles, as well as scenic designer Skip Curtiss to evoke the rehearsal room and concert halls where the two made their music together for a dozen years (1932-1944). Fresh off her acclaimed performance as Mama Rose in the Lyric's season-opener Gypsy, Barrett mines an entirely different area of her talent to bring to life the singular Jenkins. Vocally, there is no comparison between the Merman-esque Rose and her show biz stylings, and FFJ's classic (albeit bad) coloratura. However, describing herself as a lyric mezzo soprano, Barrett has the range and the training to sing the Jenkins songbook and, somehow, finds the ability to sing all the wrong notes in the right way.
McGarrahan is affable and a bit tongue-in-cheek as FFJ's long-time accompanist. The conceit is that Cosmé is looking back at their partnership twenty years after Jenkins' death, regaling us with tales of her awful singing, but told from the heart. His fondness for her makes it evident that he still misses her, and, despite his initial reaction to her voice, he always treats her with kindness and respect once they become a team. Temperley assigns Cosmé the task of narrating and explaining, periodically breaking the fourth wall with an aside, as if taking the audience into his confidence. These interruptions feature a lighting change, usually darkening the background and isolating McGarrahan in a spotlight, and then bringing the lights back up when the action continues. Lighting designer Chris Hudacs and sound designer David Wilson assure that we don't miss a facial expression, a sour note, or the sounds of her audiences reacting to FFJ's music. Costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley has a field day, dressing Barrett in a multitude of gowns for Jenkins' Carnegie Hall concert, as well as a wardrobe of interesting items for her every day wear.
Souvenir works on many levels, and the fact that both actors play it straight enhances the beauty and warmth of the story. It also happens to be really funny, but the audience is not encouraged to laugh at Florence's singing; rather, the humor is spawned by her personality, her foibles, and some of the situations that Temperley shows us. McGarrahan doubles as the show's music director and, in addition to all of the operatic pieces he plays to accompany Barrett, he tickles the ivories with style (and without benefit of sheet music) on a number of popular tunes of the period. It's almost like being in a piano bar, only without the bar, and it's delightful. With the skills and experience brought to the table by Barrett and McGarrahan, Veloudos took the opportunity to add depth to their characterizations. He lets us feel the genuine affection between Florence and Cosmé, perhaps shining a light on why she was so popular and how her music truly was a joyful noise.