Pamela Reckamp – STL Limelight, December 18, 2017
So Much to Love in Max and Louie’s Souvenir.
“It’s better to be kind than right.” A perfect summation of the Max and Louie production of Souvenir, now running at the Marcelle Theatre through December 31st. Director Sydnie Grosberg-Ronga elegantly interprets playwright Stephen Temperley’s loving tribute to Florence Foster-Jenkins, a socialite and amateur singer in the early 20th century, and her longtime collaborator, accompanist, and friend, Cosme McMoon. This is an evening of laughter, remembrance, and revelation that kindness goes a long, long way.
Right away, the audience understands that Foster-Jenkins is/was an awful singer. The play, as told from the viewpoint of Cosme, spans a dozen years or so and explores how their relationship weathers the way she approached her music with a spiritual gusto seemingly lacking in other artists of the day, and Cosme’s stabs at trying to add a little reality to the performance by insisting that musical notes are more than just guideposts for the singer. His embarrassment, shame, and sometimes horror, are changed in the presence of Foster-Jenkins and we get to see him become a better man for it. My goodness, if that isn’t refreshing.
The show opens with Cosme McMoon, played by Paul Cereghino, at the piano, reminiscing about Madame Flo, as he called her in later years. I cannot think of another actor in St. Louis who could have played this role. Mr. Cereghino’s agile hands (and sometimes body) take us in and out of music and moments easily and seamlessly, as he narrates, punctuates, and provides the soundtrack for the evening. He is the everyman counterpoint to the bigger-than-life Foster-Jenkins, grounding the audience in the “real life” of a working musician in New York during the 30’s and 40’s. And he’s FUNNY. He’s a lounge act all by himself. But he’s not by himself.
Debby Lennon, in another tour-de-force performance for Max and Louie, plays Florence Foster Jenkins: the myth, the legend. She is by turns, hilarious, serious, sincere, and heart-breaking. And she sings. And sings. And sings. The musical brilliance of Ms.Lennon cannot be overstated. It takes a singer of incredible aptitude to recreate the sounds of Foster-Jenkins, a self-proclaimed coloratura, tackling the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Adele’s Laughing Song by Strauss, and the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria, and Lennon is there (or not, as the case may be) for every note. Together, these two actors create a relationship of love and trust that is just a joy to watch.
Grosberg-Ronga’s direction shapes every moment with care, from the quickly-paced banter to the lively musical accents, to the gloriously awkward and poignant spaces. And then there is the gift the audience receives before the lights dim.
The production elements of Souvenir are as top-notch as the performers. I will never tire of looking at sets designed by Dunsi Dai. As you walk into the Marcelle performance space, the back wall of “the music room” looms at you, colorful and bold, a reflection of Foster-Jenkins personality. A prominent set of double doors centerstage makes every entrance and exit striking, and a baby grand piano is always a glamorous accessory. It is highlighted by amazing projections of the Ritz-Carlton in New York city in various times of day and complete with moving clouds, and Carnegie Hall – the ultimate performance venue for Cosme and Madame Flo – thanks to the brilliance of Lighting Designers Tony Anselmo and Patrick Huber.
Costume designer Teresa Doggett has thrown down the gauntlet in this show. Each costume is a masterpiece of design and detail. A green velvet dress made me swoon at one point, and that was just one of many costume changes for Ms. Lennon. At one point, during the infamous Carnegie concert, approximately 9 costumes were designed to cover 11 pages in the script, and each one is more breathtaking than the last. Kudos to Rissa Crozier and Maren Wander for their superb attention during those quick changes – the audience is so grateful. Sound Designer Casey Hunt gives the audience the music of the masses, ala Frank Sinatra, during pre-show and intermission, a reminder that Cosme is telling the story.
If “getting lost in the music” is what you desire, RUN to see Souvenir this holiday season.