Newspaper Review

Judith Newmark – St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec 19, 2017

Max & Louie comedy rings with laughter -— and wrong notes

When he first took his job as Florence Foster Jenkins’ accompanist, Cosme McMoon explains in Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” he did it for the money. The pay was good, the vacations were long and his generous employer urged him to keep writing songs of his own.

It was a hard job, though. He had to listen to her sing.

Though she fancied herself a contralto, Jenkins’ singing was beyond belief. What’s even harder to believe? Temperley’s two-character comedy — sailing to laugh-out-loud heights under director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga at Max & Louie Productions — is based on a true story.

A wealthy socialite, Jenkins (Debby Lennon) made a name for herself in the 1930s and ’40s. She started by giving concerts for friends, but as demand grew, there were larger audiences, then records, then her Carnegie Hall debut.

Her voice was so hideous that people came to laugh. But in Temperley’s telling, Jenkins never realized that — in part because McMoon (Paul Cereghino) became not only her accompanist but her protector.

“I found myself admiring her certainty,” reports McMoon, who tells the story in flashback. Later, he wonders if she actually invented a new art form.

Only once, frustrated and overwhelmed, does he suggest that her voice is not the glorious instrument she imagines. She’s hurt, of course.

But, confident that what really counts is “the music you hear in your head,” she accepts his backtracking apology with queenly grace. Convinced of her gift, Jenkins stands beyond criticism; few artists are so blessed.

Cereghino gives a poised, wry performance throughout, well-calibrated to this intimate theater. It’s as if he were telling stories to friends.

So why, in such a space, is he wearing a microphone? And if it is really needed, couldn’t it have been colored to match his dark hair? His performance is too smooth for this lapse.

Lennon is a marvel. Of course, she is really a wonderful singer — you probably have to be to play this role, which demands strict vocal control. She’s quite a comedian, too.

Her portrayal of Jenkins offstage, rich in ladylike manners and cooing self-praise, is subtle and period-perfect.

When she sings opera, complete with exaggerated facial expressions and florid gestures, she’s hilarious.

Teresa Doggett designed her fabulously over-the-top costumes, and Dunsi Dai designed the arching, elegant set.

“Souvenir” submits readily to a socioeconomic interpretation. If Jenkins had been an ordinary woman, she simply would have been the thorn in some choir director’s side, tolerated for her dedication. Her considerable privilege enabled her to find a unique career.

But as McMoon reminds us, she truly loved the music; to her, it was all that counted. Who’s to say that she wasn’t true to what she heard in her head? That must have been a privilege indeed.“Souvenir”