note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Carl A. Rossi
Cosme McMoon … Will McGarrahan
Florence Foster Jenkins … Leigh Barrett
SOUVENIR is Stephen Temperley’s fantasia on Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), the American socialite-turned-recitalist who achieved cult status by having no musical ability whatsoever (her recordings, preserved on two CD collections, provide ample testimony). Accompanied by her faithful pianist Cosme McMoon, Mme. Jenkins’ recitals, beginning at private functions and culminating at Carnegie Hall shortly before her death, drew enthusiastic crowds who openly laughed at her ineptitude yet Mme. Jenkins apparently was oblivious at being the butt of her own joke. Narrated by Mr. McMoon, SOUVENIR celebrates their collaboration from beginning to end with the man coming to respect and even admire his patroness’ staggering lack of talent and the evening concludes with a clever, lovely epiphany.
Twice I have seen the original New York production, at two different theatres with two different McMoons, each with Broadway’s Judy Kaye as Mme. Jenkins; all in all, the Lyric Stage of Boston’s production is far superior: Spiro Veloudos’ warm, loving gaze allows the relationship to expand rather than beg for easy laughs, and SOUVENIR now registers as a play instead of a one-joke sketch. Will McGarrahan, an offbeat leading man, is the best of McMoons, poised between the catty and the compassionate, and though he is onstage more than his leading lady, he never demands equal stage-time but supports Mme. Jenkins even in her absence. (Watch his subtle expressions at the keyboard when Mme. Jenkins’ Carnegie Hall audience turns on her.) If I’ve a nitpik, it is Mr. McGarrahan mugging at Mme. Jenkins’ announcements as did Ms. Kaye’s second accompanist; one would think that after twelve years the man would have tempered his reactions: a glazed smile as a hand absently crumples a piece of sheet music, say, rather than a doubling over as if being punched in the stomach...
Leigh Barrett impersonates Mme. Jenkins. No other Boston singer has evolved so much in the past few years nor has me so flip-flopping in my reactions:
“This sunshiny singer-actress continues to impress whenever I have had the good fortune to see her …. Her natural high spirits make her sad songs even more memorable: when a dark cloud passes over the warming sun, how we long for it to smile on us again!” (Gloucester Stage Company’s JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS)
“I’m concerned with Ms. Barrett’s artistic health: she has hardened as a performer; there always seems to be a scream just under her skin, these days --- if this is what singing too much of Mr. Sondheim’s repertory does to a singer, a healthy dose of Sammy Cahn or Burt Bacharach should do the trick.” (Lyric Stage’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC)
“I first encountered Ms. Barrett sunny side up in SpeakEasy’s A CLASS ACT, several years ago, and felt a growing concern as she immersed herself in Mr. Sondheim’s world with similar side trips along the way, growing grimmer, colder in the process. Happily, Ms. Barrett is such a superb artist that she can close one drawer and open another for bearing and tone: her sailing through Mr. Sondheim’s complexities allows her to now fly through Mr. Hart’s simpler-sounding but no less potent lyrics and when coupled with her innate musicality her Vera enchants, pure and simple. Ms. Barrett’s stage-guardedness lends backbone to Vera’s high-stepping status and also a refined sexiness more alluring than any vamping would accomplish.” (Stoneham Theatre’s PAL JOEY)
“Leigh Barrett is surprisingly funny as the Baron’s soon-to-be ex and her knockout rendition of what I believe to be “I’m Back in Circulation” is a huge advance over her fussy “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from last season’s PAL JOEY; should Ms. Barrett choose, she could develop into that rare bird: a ladylike vaudevillian, Camp-free.” (Stoneham’s YOU NEVER KNOW)
Happily, Ms. Barrett continues not to camp though, like Ms. Kaye, she delivers her lines in candied sing-song instead of digging for the quixotic creature beneath them (sing “Heigh-ho!” in a vibrato-falsetto, and you have Ms. Barrett's declaiming style) and, again, like her predecessor, Ms. Barrett underlines SOUVENIR’s double-meanings (compared to Mr. McGarrahan who deftly tosses them away) nor has either actress indicated that Mme. Jenkins is an old woman with a voice already in decline. Ms. Barrett, however, triumphs where Ms. Kaye did not: she convinces you that she cannot sing. Ms. Kaye was clearly in on the joke and belted with a gusto that would call the pigs, home; Ms. Barrett captures Mme. Jenkins’ fragile swoops, cackles and breath-shortages, embellishing them with trancelike ecstasies and empty, flamboyant gestures. Between the sing-song and the caterwauling, Ms. Barrett is constantly vocalizing; by the time she gets to her apotheosis she is forced to floor her high notes instead of floating them --- a disappointing fade-out. On the night I attended, the audience enjoyed Ms. Barrett’s company and I, too, was entertained, but first impressions run deep and the sunshine that Ms. Barrett displayed a mere four years ago now filters through winter’s skies, and she remains at arm’s-length --- Ms. Barrett's most endearing moments occur during the Carnegie Hall sequence where she squints into offstage’s darkness before exiting, again and again; this repeated bit of clowning hints at a singer-turned-diva aiming to be popular, once more.