Richard T. Green – Talkin Broadway, December 18, 2017
Marie Antoinette is supposed to have said, “let them eat cake,” as French peasants grew angry at her profligacy. Likewise, in a moment of imagined noblesse oblige, in our own Great Depression, Manhattan millionaire Florence Foster Jenkins very nearly said, “let them hear me sing.”
But nobody guillotined Florence Foster Jenkins, as part of some great proletariat rebellion. In fact she got a record contract, which showcased her awful singing and gave ironic cheer to Americans suffering through hard times, far below her apartments in the Ritz-Carlton. And that was a miracle of show business: the follies of the rich were laid bare, the suffering were amused, and nobody got their head chopped off. She was group therapy for a nation in crisis.
The big problem, of course, was keeping Mrs. Foster Jenkins blissfully unaware that people were laughing at her and not with her. Enter a young, penniless pianist and music lover, Cosme McMoon. Florence had a lot of ridicule directed back at her, in her singing “career,” but Cosme made sure she never knew. And now in 2017, with income inequality the worst it’s been since the Depression, Florence is back, making the rich seem foolish and the poor seem wise all over again, in Stephen Temperley’s great little musical comedy from 2004.
His real-life Margaret Dumont-style matron is played in this St. Louis premier with great comic insight by Debby Lennon, under the thoughtful direction of Sydney Grosberg Ronga. Here, Ms. Lennon has a wealthy dowager’s fruity voice and operatic bearing. But if you’ve seen her on stage in her last two shows and enjoyed Ms. Lennon’s consistent sensitivity in song, you’ll be stunned by this ruthless, hilarious assault on the diatonic scale.
Last year, Ms. Lennon beautifully assayed the dual role of mother and daughter in Grey Gardens (also for Max & Louie Productions), and then the role of the haunted mother in Next to Normal this past summer (for Insight Theatre), each with unerring musical and psychological acumen. But now, in Souvenir, she gives us a clueless — but undeniably funny — game of cat and mouse with the very art of music itself.
Her able (and usually patient) accompanist Cosme is played by the complex and winning Paul Cereghino. The part could have gone to a much less interesting actor, but thanks to him, Cosme’s monologs to the audience are bemused meditations on ridiculous stardom and the catty fans who discovered her from his heretofore hidden gay life. Told in flashback, their story covers roughly 1932 to 1944 in New York City. Near the outset, Cosme begins to realize the difficulty (and likely humiliation) of hitching his musical wagon to this unlikely star. As Cosme delves into her intentions and wildly self-assured lack of talent, he becomes afraid—looking like a novice snake charmer on his first day at work, as if this innocent, would-be diva were suddenly a basketful of cobras.
Fortunately, it turns out to be a crazy roller-coaster ride for them both—as long as Mrs. Foster Jenkins never recognized the joke was on her. That, of course, leads to the two-hour show’s ultimate crisis, when a great Carnegie Hall concert ends in hysterics for her audience, and for us.
Mr. Temperley’s script is initially organized around rehearsals for her private concerts. Later we witness the concerts themselves, as word gets out about this unbelievable spectacle. In the Max & Louie production, Ms. Lennon’s biggest, most persistent laughs come from her badly singing the “Ave Maria” by Charles Gounod — in renditions that are unintentionally sacrilegious, and likewise irresistibly funny. In fact, every one of her fabulously bobbled songs, and all of Cosme’s speeches, twinkle with Algonquinesque wit in performance.
Finally, unexpectedly, Ms. Lennon’s searching, ruined scene at the end cuts into all of us. For the dowager — despite all of her distancing remarks about the class difference between her and her accompanist — is a good-hearted person. And yet she’s also quite plainly a silly person — insisting, for example, that she has perfect pitch, when manifestly she does not. But her rich friends and her astonished “fans” egg her on, celebrating the rarity of their own position, looking down on her. It’s a madly precarious celebration of an emperor’s new clothes for all concerned.
Dunsi Dai’s set puts us dizzyingly high atop the Ritz-Carlton, under raked windows, with skyscrapers towering in the distance and the occasional bird or plane shooting by. It’s quite resplendent.
And, though she’s never on stage herself, costumer Teresa Doggett becomes an invisible third character in the play, with a pageant of amazing gowns for her star. Elegant daywear accented with gold art deco trim gives way to sprays of aqua-colored ostrich feathers, and blue veils and red mantillas, and a gold sequined number that’s so weighty, it literally rumbles across the stage as our star makes her entrance and exit. Likewise, Mr. Cereghino is super-elegant, humble in white tie and tails, and delightful on the keyboard.
Ms. Lennon herself, up until a lovely dream sequence at the end, only inadvertently hit one tiny little run of notes in their exact, right order (by mistake) on the night we attended. The entire role seems to represent a great internal battle of wits between her relentless, real-life artistry, and her impressive comic instincts.