November 10, 2017

in Plays

Play (2004)
by Stephen Temperley

Directed by Spiro Veloudos

Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Copley Square area, Boston

Costume Design: Gail Astrid Buckley

With Leigh Barrett (Florence Foster Jenkins), Will McGarrahan (Cosmé McMoon)

Leigh Barrett as Florence Foster Jenkins, Will McGarrahan as Cosmé McMoon in 'Souvenir'

Leigh Barrett as Florence Foster Jenkins
Will McGarrahan as Cosmé McMoon
in “Souvenir”
Photo: Mark S. Howard
Courtesy of Lyric Stage Company of Boston

Set in the first half of the twentieth century, a funny as well as poignant portrayal of the famous heiress who could not sing in tune but who drew audiences by the thousands.

The story was made well known by the recent film starring Meryl Streep: a New Yorker with money and gumption, but not much talent, who by sheer determination and inadvertent popularity carved out a successful recording and concert career. The film does a creditable job of demonstrating the contributing factors in Jenkins’ life, including the story of her devoted-with-a-wink husband and dedicated accompanist.

On the surface, Souvenir tells the same story and is filled with lots and lots of bad singing, made beautifully awful by the very capable Leigh Barrett. Yet, its focus and subtext are quite different from the film.

The play is a two-person enterprise, focusing purely on the relationship between Jenkins and McMoon, her accompanist. As a result, inevitably, the story, and the central concern, becomes one about artistry.

The main question is how Jenkins is able to plough ahead without any consciousness of the ridiculousness of her output. In that sense, the play is about personal lack of awareness. And yet, it is much more, which makes it interesting. As McMoon soliloquizes in the second act, Jenkins’ incapacity to allow self-doubt to intrude upon her determination to be out there with her music is a kind of artistry in itself. He questions his own accomplishments as a result and wonders how much of Jenkins’ determination added to his own career saga might have helped it to mature into something that felt more satisfying to him.

Though comedic on the surface and histrionic in its treatment of Jenkins’ obvious tonal impairments, the play is really about artistic courage. It ends with a distinctively beautiful rendition of Ave Maria sung wonderfully by Barrett, as though Jenkins were singing what she heard; it offers a satisfying and compelling conclusion to the hilarious but poignant play.

Souvenir was produced by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston in 2007 starring the very same Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan.

The great mystery, of course, is what enabled Jenkins to continue to sing without hearing how bad she was. Somehow, she was able to continue along, exuberantly happy with what she thought her accomplishments were. In her case, the result is a kind of humorously awful product.

Yet, if one thinks of all of the cases in which artists contribute perfectly awful things into the common space without any humility or humor whatsoever, Jenkins’ example is not so very odd. Standards of tonality and familiarity with melodies enable us to judge Jenkins severely. In other contexts, we may need to look or listen more closely to see or hear the paucity of the results.

A large part of the second act is devoted to a dramatization of Jenkins’ Carnegie Hall concert. She changes costumes a millions times, which provides some hilarious transitions. It’s also a reminder that this is an act that has become unwittingly comedic.

There is very little art that becomes hilariously entertaining because of its commonly regarded impoverishment. It is refreshing to have something which satirizes itself at the same time that it works so hard for approval. Through that combination of determination and unwitting failure, the vulnerability and purposiveness of Jenkins’ character comes through – traits which, in the end, McMoon, as proxy for us all, regards with revised appreciation.

Leigh Barrett sings perfectly awfully for most of the show, as required, and then beautifully at the end. She is very funny and sweetly vulnerable as Jenkins.

Will McGarrahan as McMoon does a wonderful job of playing the piano expertly, singing along, and offering a philosophical reflection on the weird wonders of Jenkins’ unique endeavor.

– BADMan

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