Ten years after staging Stephen Temperley’s two-hander Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins Spiro Veloudos, the artistic director of Boston’s Lyric Stage, has revived it with the same cast. Not having seen the earlier production, I am unable to compare the two. However, both talented performers Will McGarrahan and Leigh Barrett are comfortable and believable in their roles.
Since Souvenir’s Broadway début in 2005, Florence Foster Jenkins has become considerably better known. Coincidently, Peter Quilter’s British iteration with an even longer title: Glorious!: The True Story of Florence Foster the Worst Singer in the World opened the same year.
Glorious was more successful in the U.K. than in the U.S. In 2,007, a biography by Nicholas Martin and Jasper Rees was published; in 2016, the biopic starring Meryl Streep came out as did yet another biography, Florence Foster Jenkins, The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer, this one penned by Daryl W. Bullock. A second movie on the subject, a French version called Marguerite garnered several César awards. Within a short period Jenkins became the topic of interest she had been in her own time.
Souvenir is more of a narrative related by Cosmé McMoon, Jenkins’ pianist and music teacher, than a drama. At the opening in 1964, twenty years after Jenkins’ death, McMoon is still mourning her loss and the friendship they developed over time. The show moves back and forth from his tales told to the audience as he plays and sings popular tunes of the thirties and forties to scenes with Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite who believes she has an extraordinary gift as a coloratura, a delusion McMoon quickly discovers. She is tone deaf; the sounds that she makes in lieu of music are both painful and funny to hear.
Her performing experience thus far had been limited to charity concerts at New York’s Ritz Carlton attended by her friends. But her ambitions drive her to dream of singing for larger audiences. Despite her snobbism and lack of ability, McMoon accepts her as a student and agrees to be her accompanist so he will have an income and be able to devote time to his own composing.
Over time, McMoon becomes moved by Jenkins’ will and unfounded belief in her talent, and does all he can to help her to improve, to no avail. McGarrahan plays the part with warmth, kindness, and irony.
Jenkins rents venues to perform and develops a following, which grows steadily larger. The politer among them stuff their mouths with handkerchiefs so Jenkins won’t be aware of their laughter as she sings opera arias. Others are not so considerate. Among the attendees at the recitals were musical celebrities such as Cole Porter and Toscanini. While certain newspapers and magazines gave her tongue-in-cheek compliments, Time Magazine’s reviews were honest, if cruel.
In 1944 at the age of 76 she booked Carnegie Hall to give a concert, which sold out immediately. She went all out for the show, choosing an incongruous program that would have strained an accomplished professional. To McMoon’s embarrassment she performs a piece he wrote before his realization that he was a mediocre composer at best. For each song she wears a different outfit, each more bizarre than the preceding one. In moments of joy and thankfulness, she throws flowers at her malicious audience. Only at the concert’s end does she suspect that she is being mocked. A month later she dies.
Leigh Barrett’s performance is outstanding although it forces her to mangle her beautiful voice to recreate Jenkins’ dreadful sounds. At the play’s end the audience and Ms. Barrett are given a lovely moment. She reappears from the dead as a younger attractive woman wearing a simple stylish dress and sings the Ave Maria as Jenkins heard it in her head.
Gail Astrid’s costumes based on Jenkins’ actual wardrobe are a delight. Skip Curtis’ set of the music room and ball room of the Ritz Carlton and the stage of Carnegie Hall is simple, attractive, and changes the blocking possibilities of the Lyric’s stage. Kudos to Spiro Veloudos for a job well done.
reviewed by Jane Baldwin. Photo by Mark S. Howard.
The Lyric Stage production of Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins continues until November 19, 2017 at 140 Clarendon Street, Boston MA.
Playwright and Composer ………Stephen Temperley
Director ………………………….Spiro Veloudos
Music Director …………………..Will McGarrahan
Scenic Design .………………….. Skip Curtiss
Costume Design ………………… Gail Astrid Buckley
Sound Design ……………………. David Wilson
Florence Foster Jenkins …………… Leigh Barrett
Cosmé McMoon …………………… Will McGarrahan