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New York Theater

Souvenir

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This is a charmingly good play about bad singing. Its protagonist is the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins (Judy Kaye), a wealthy society eccentric who believed that she was a great soprano, despite her patent lack of ability. Her annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom were limited to friends -- she handled the distribution of tickets herself. But her fame, for all the wrong reasons, spread, and even greater glory -- or humiliation -- lay ahead. Her story is told through the eyes of Cosme McMoon (Jack F. Lee), her accompanist, who begins in disbelief at what he hears but stays to become a friend. With two wonderful performances, sensitively directed by Vivian Matalon, this production is a small but polished gem.

The central focus of Stephen Temperley's play with music is not the bad singing; rather, it is the developing relationship between Cosme and Madame Flo. Certainly it begins with bad singing -- and much fun for the audience -- as the young Cosme is amazed at the sounds coming out of Madame Flo's mouth. This amazement continues each step of the way through the first recital, a proposed Town Hall concert, to the first recording: "A record!" cries Cosme. "A wonderful souvenir," reassures Madame Flo. Such is the adroitness in Temperley's writing that in the first act's climactic scene, when Cosme's frustration boils over and he calls her "You silly woman!," it is, from the audience's reaction, as if he had slapped her face. Their 16-year alliance, and the play, reaches a crescendo in the famous 1944 Carnegie Hall concert.

The wonder is that Temperley easily sustains this slim premise, greatly helped by his two performers. Lee's Cosme is not only a character, a commentator, and a lyrical musician, but also the comedy conduit of the play. Kaye's Madame Flo, in Tracy Christensen's delicious costumes, is an off-key, off-everything delight, as well as being a wholly convincing and poignant portrayal.

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