Chuck Lavazzi – OnSTL, December 19, 2017
Is ‘Souvenir’ the perfect holiday show?
The Christmas season is many things to many people, but to me it has always been a time to celebrate love and friendship. That’s why I think Max and Louie Productions’ thoroughly wonderful presentation of Stephen Temperley’s comedy Souvenir: A Fantasia on Florence Foster Jenkins just might be the perfect holiday show.
Debby Lennon is ideal as the legendary society matron soprano with the tin ear and Paul Cereghino is the impeccable foil as her accompanist and friend Cosme McMoon. Their story, in Mr. Temperley’s telling, is a tribute to the power of love and friendship. It’s funny, ultimately touching, and brilliantly done under Sydnie Grosberg Ronga’s expert direction. Adding to the polish are Teresa Doggett’s stunning costumes and Dunsi Dai’s elegant set, enhanced greatly by Patrick Huber’s lighting and digital projections.
You might be forgiven for not knowing who Florence Foster Jenkins was. A wealthy New York City patron of the arts, she achieved a kind of cult figure status in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s for her stunningly awful performances of art songs including, most (in)famously, the Queen of the Night’s revenge aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute (which must be heard to be believed). She even recorded nine of them, all of which are now available on CD, iTunes and (of course) YouTube.
In short, she was the Ed Wood of classical music. Like a certain reality TV show star who has risen to national prominence recently, her self-confidence was inversely proportional to her actual ability. Unlike him, she was a kind and caring person who donated all the proceeds from her private concerts to charity and who inspired affection and loyalty in her friends and admirers.
The role of Ms. Jenkins is a challenging one, requiring a skilled actress who is also a strong singer with a good ear. Ms. Lennon is both of those. She sounds so much like Ms. Jenkins’s recordings that it’s sometimes eerie.
The part of Cosme McMoon offers a different set of challenges, since the actor not only carries the bulk of the story but also must sing and play the piano credibly. Mr. Cereghino is just the man for the job, instantly winning the audience’s affection with his self-effacing humor and his easy confidence at the baby grand. They’re a flawless team.
“An artist,” observes McMoon early in the play, “finds his or her own true voice. Second-raters sound like everyone else. The real ones-when you hear them-there’s no mistaking.” Souvenir is a witty and wise tribute to someone who never sounded like anyone else, and if the final scene (which I refuse to spoil for you) doesn’t break your heart, you don’t have one to break.