Newspaper Review

Mark Bretz – Ladue News, December 19, 2017

Max & Louie’s ‘Souvenir’ Is Pitch-Perfect Comedy.

Story: It’s 1964 as pianist Cosme McMoon reflects on a most remarkable period of his life. From 1932 until 1944 he was the accompanist for noted eccentric socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. Lady Florence, as she preferred to be called, fancied herself possessing a splendid soprano voice and enjoyed giving occasional recitals for friends in the Ritz-Carlton Suite Music Room in New York City.

On the hunt for an accompanist who could play the piano and also take seriously the wealthy woman’s love of great music, she hires McMoon to work with her. Hearing her practice, McMoon is incredulous at how truly awful Lady Florence’s voice is, but he learns soon enough that she is serious about her art, spreading joy among her friends with her ‘talent.’

Thus begins a most unusual business relationship and eventual friendship as McMoon dutifully assists Lady Florence in preparing for her concerts and even recording a “souvenir” of her performing the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, on vinyl.

The crème de la crème, though, is an appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1944. Unlike Lady Florence’s recitals, this concert is open to the public and to music critics as well. McMoon is astonished that he and his music partner are to take the stage at one of the world’s most glorious venues. He wonders also how the general public, which has heard about Jenkins’ notorious attempts at singing, will react to her off-key efforts and her array of flamboyant costumes.

Highlights: Max & Louie Productions delivers a delightful holiday present for its audiences with a pitch-perfect comedy about real-life eccentric Florence Foster Jenkins and her faithful pianist and accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Noted vocalist Debby Lennon is the best bad singer you’ve ever heard, with notable contributions by pianist/actor Paul Cereghino, under Sydnie Grosberg Ronga’s precise direction.

Other Info: Jenkins was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868 to the scion of a wealthy land-owning family. After the deaths of her parents and her only sister, she inherited considerable wealth which enabled the talented pianist to pursue a career in the arts in New York City.

Although she was a fine pianist, her musical abilities did not extend to singing. This she apparently did not realize, or if she did it didn’t stop her from performing. Playwright Stephen Temperley’s 2004 comedy focuses primarily on the dozen years in which Jenkins teamed with McMoon for regular concerts which became a cause celebre among her friends and which were beloved by fans such as Cole Porter and Gian Carlo Menotti.

It’s especially difficult for an accomplished performer to intentionally sing badly. Lennon not only is convincing in hitting the right notes in a horribly wrong way but also in portraying the sincerity and simplicity in Jenkins’ love of singing. As Lady Florence famously once said, “Some may say that I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing.”

Lennon fully possesses Jenkins’ character as much when she’s convincing McMoon to commit to their efforts as when she’s wrecking vocals with lusty and remarkable abandon. There are too many moments to single out for highlights, although her gentle reprimand of Cosme being ‘off’ in his playing at one point surely ranks near the top in the breezy, two-act presentation.

Cereghino makes a splendid foil as the incredulous Cosme, who learns soon enough that Lady Florence is not putting on an act but rather working on one, a big difference that becomes apparent as the self-proclaimed “mediocre pianist” learns more about the bizarre socialite.

An accomplished pianist and actor himself, Cereghino contributes to the comedy with Cosme’s stunned reactions to what he hears as well as the responses of Jenkins’ friends to her performances. He also conveys Cosme’s affection for his musical partner as he “explains” the laughter she hears in Carnegie Hall in the show’s most poignant scene, lifting her from her temporary depression.

Ronga’s pacing is smooth and steady, most impressive when Cereghino holds court as Cosme reminiscing with the audience (“You can see a lot from a piano bench”) while Lennon makes one of her endless costume changes with impressive alacrity. Costume designer Teresa Doggett is responsible for the myriad of outfits worn by Lennon, from proper upper-class wear to the outlandish get-ups Jenkins uses to accentuate her numbers.

Dunsi Dai’s scenic design is anchored by a series of large windows at the back of the set which seem to sweep out and upward, filled with pictures of moving clouds or a Gotham skyline, while the stage itself is tastefully adorned with a piano and some comfortable seats at stage right. Lighting designers Patrick Huber and Tony Anselmo provide fine assistance with the subtle shades which illuminate various scenes and Casey Hunter adds an effective sound design.

Souvenir offers an abundance of laughs at the expense of Florence Foster Jenkins’ fractured impression of her abilities. Just as much, though, it paints a loving portrait of two performers who gave of themselves to share their art with others, regardless of the consequences.