By Michele Markarian
‘Souvenir’ – Written by Stephen Temperley. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Presented by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA through November 19.
“How many people have already seen the show?” asked Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos during his curtain speech. A large number of hands went up in the audience. “What the heck? Who sees a show twice?” I thought. After seeing “Souvenir” once, I get it. This is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen all year, with its two performers wonderfully in tune with each another.
“Souvenir” tells the story of Florence Foster Jenkins (Leigh Barrett), narrated in flashback, by her pianist, Cosme McMoon (Will McGarrahan). Florence is long dead, and oddly enough, despite being deeply embarrassed by his employer’s notorious lack of musical talent, Cosme misses her. Over the next two hours, we relive the twelve years that Cosme and Florence spent together, rehearsing and executing “recitals” at Florence’s residence at the Ritz Carlton in New York City, culminating with their debut at Carnegie Hall.
Cosme is a mere 29 years old when he meets the older Mrs. Jenkins, or Mrs. J, as he calls her. She is looking to hire a pianist to accompany her. Cosme is tired of odd jobs and gigs that go nowhere, so despite being warned – “When I was a young woman, my singing was actively discouraged” she tells him – he takes the post. Indeed, Florence is a terrible singer, who doesn’t seem able to hear the notes. Not that it matters, as she believes she has perfect pitch. Her belief in herself is such that when she listens to a recording she made, she is entranced, declaring that the only bum notes are the fault of the pianist and the microphone.
Florence’s faith in her talent appears to be obtuse, but charmingly, without conceit. Her friends are encouraging, despite the fact that they regard her as a joke. She takes her “talent” as a fact and assumes that her audience members are so moved by her performances that they are stuffing handkerchiefs into their mouths to stifle their sobbing (they are actually stifling laughter). Cosme has no illusions, and his friends are not as kind to him as Florence’s are to her. Cosme, who writes songs that no one is interested in, begins to fear that perhaps he is as talentless as she is. When Florence compliments him with “Finally – to find an accompanist on one’s own level,” he visibly pales. If water seeks its own level, Cosme’s musical career is humiliating.
Barrett and McGarrahan complement each other perfectly as Florence and Cosme. Barrett is utterly deadpan and plays Florence without irony or humor, which makes her very, very funny. It takes an exceptional singer to perform as badly as Florence, and Barrett is just wonderful. McGarrahan is a relaxed and loose foil against his employer’s upper class rigidity; his playing and singing appear effortless. His expressions, particularly when Barrett is provoking him, are hilarious.
Skip Curtiss’s set is simple and elegant, serving mostly as Florence’s rooms at the Ritz, with the removal of a few pieces transporting it to a recital hall. Gail Astrid Buckley’s marvelous period costumes run the gamut from exquisite to gaudy, which Florence was prone to. The final moment of “Souvenir” features Barrett singing “Ave Maria”, the way Florence thought she sounded. It is stunning, and brought the grateful audience to its feet. For more info, go to: http://www.lyricstage.com/