Tina Farmer – KDHX, December 29, 2017
‘Souvenir’ is a brilliant work of showmanship, missed notes, and an enduring if odd friendship.
Max and Louis Productions, under the direction of Sydnie Grosberg Ronga, treats audiences to the most delicious of holiday confections, Souvenir: a fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins. The delightfully comic, poignantly warm and touching play relates the friendship and artistic collaboration between the notoriously bad but celebrated singer Florence Foster Jenkins and her accompanist Cosme McMoon. While the singer is truly and often humorously off-key, the spirited and passionate show hits all the right notes.
The company’s excellent production, with sparkling performances from Debby Lennon and Paul Cereghino, ornate costumes by Teresa Doggett, and a dreamy, evocative set and technical design by Dunsi Dai, Patrick Huber, Tony Anselmo, and Casey Hunter, is a sublime treat for audiences. The actors strike the perfect balance of affected and genuine, somehow capturing the spirit of two nearly forgotten celebrities with sympathetic and endearing performances. There’s a remarkable bond of love between the two and both have their peculiarities, though Jenkins is clearly the more eccentric. Educated and proud, both can be stubborn but Jenkins always gets her way, frequently to comic effect as McMoon contorts and rephrases to appease the diva without sacrificing all his dignity.
Lennon is simply perfection as the fearless diva who may not sing well, but she most definitely sings with heart and soul. She captures Jenkins’ joie de vivre and vocal inhibition as well as her deep love of music with authentic enthusiasm. Lennon cheerfully expresses the singer’s exuberant, can-do personality as well as her firm belief that the audience is laughing, crying, and cheering her on in appreciation and admiration rather than mocking.
Jenkins popularity as a soloist remains an enigma to this day, as her voice was sometimes close but never on the note and often forcefully off key. Still, her fans included numerous celebrities and personalities of note and she even collaborated with the famed composer Toscanini. The charismatic and talented Lennon brings Jenkins to life with much affection, then gives us a glorious finale that shares Jenkins inner voice with us. The moment is breathtaking and tear-inducing.
We are guided through the story by an older, reflective Cosme McMoon, and Paul Cereghino is spectacular as Jenkins jocular, occasionally acerbic but ultimately sincere and devoted accompanist and coach. The show opens with McMoon playing a solo set in some small piano bar about 20 years after Jenkins’ death. An accomplished singer and pianist, his humor is informed and sophisticated, but restrained, never cruel. His set this night is a reverie on his time with Jenkins and we soon flash back to that period.
As McMoon, Cereghino occasionally snaps then quickly recovers and restates his case in more appealing terms; at other times he fawns just enough to remain positive but not so much as to be dishonest. Cereghino brings a glibly sarcastic tone, with a refined sensibility and a concern, an almost reverence, for Jenkins’ history and their strange partnership. By the end of their collaboration, McMoon is actively working to protect and make the most of Jenkins’ abilities, desperately wanting to shield her from harsh judgment or the knowledge that she is the subject of much parody and parlor humor.
When Jenkins has her moment of doubt, it is McMoon who is there to buoy her up, a reversal of their usual roles. Jenkins, once so strong and certain, is suddenly fragile, and her confusion, the newness of the sensation, is visible in the haunted, frightened look that flashes across Lennon’s face and distinct but almost imperceptible tremors. Cereghino’s portrayal of McMoon is so heartfelt, his concerns so intense, one can’t help but root for Jenkins with equal fervor.
Doggett’s costumes and Dai’s environment match the luxurious aesthetic of the show and envelope the audience with a sense of artistic indulgence. It’s the perfect finishing touches to a beautifully rendered show that sparkles with wit, intelligence, and phenomenal performances. Written with fondness by Stephen Temperley, Max and Louie Productions’ Souvenir runs through December 31 at the Marcelle theater. Laugh out loud funny and touchingly tender, the show is a lovely gem that shines with heart, joy, and a love of music.