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Paulanne Simmons

"Souvenir" Is Memorable


Directed by Vivian Matalon
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th St.
Opened Nov. 10, 2005
Tues. thru Sat 8 p.m., Wed. & Sat 2 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.
$46.25-$86.25, (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Nov. 8, 2005

There's nothing new about comic teams made up of a ditsy woman and a long-suffering, perplexed man. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and George Burns and Gracie Allen immediately come to mind. But it's doubtful that any such couple has ever been as touchingly and lovingly portrayed as in Stephen Temperley's "Souvenir," first presented at the York Theater last December, now at The Lyceum.

Souvenir is based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, who, after the death of her wealthy father, used the money she inherited to launched an ill-advised singing career. Jenkins claimed she had perfect pitch, but her performances made it apparent she could neither find nor sustain a note, even with the help of her loyal accompanist, Cosme McMoon.

Despite the hoots and howls of the audience, composed of other socialites who came to see Jenkins make a fool of herself, she performed annually at the Ritz Carlton during the 30s and 40s (the proceeds were donated to charity) and at the age of 76, appeared at Carnegie Hall a month before her death.

The inherent comedy and pathos in the story is evident. And Temperley has shown considerable skill in his dramatization. Directed with great assurance by Vivian Matalon, Souvenir stars Judy Kaye as Jenkins and Donald Corren as McMoon, who relates the story twenty years after Jenkins's death.

The drama unfolds as a dreamlike memory. As he narrates, Corren sips his drink, tickles the ivories and sings many of the era's standards by Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Sammy Cahn, Harold Arlen and Jule Styne. Often he seems to be singing more to himself than to the audience.

But Souvenir, which strikes the same chord (figuratively if not literally) over and over again, might have been swamped by stale jokes and overplayed double entendres were it not for the effervescent performance of Kaye.

Kaye is naïve, childlike, ridiculous and painfully sincere. She makes noises so ghastly one fears she may harm her fine voice. In the penultimate scene, when she performs at Carnegie Hall dressed in a succession of extravagant costumes (Tracy Christensen gets the credit for costume design), she slips gracefully into brilliant slapstick. In his scenes with Kaye, Corren groans and grimaces each time Kaye reveals a new entertainment venture she has planned. But it is clear by intermission he has fallen under the spell of this woman whose ego seems to have been as big as her heart. Still, he might have been more effective if he had toned down his performance and left the heart clutching and gasping to Kaye.

Corren, like Kay, is actually best when he is most vulnerable – at those moments when he reveals his own frustrations as a writer of songs no one wants to sing. .For at heart, there's not much difference between McMoon and Jenkins. Both are victims of their unfulfilled dreams.

What makes this Souvenir so wonderful is that it finds the humanity that turns comedy into poetry. In the play's final scene many in the audience may trade laughter for tears.

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