The world’s worst opera singer never sounded better. Souvenir takes audiences to the 1920’s to watch Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite renowned for her off-pitch soprano, skip every beat.
Lyric Stage veteran Leigh Barrett plays the historic singer. Cosmé McMoon, played wonderfully by Will McGarrahan, narrates Stephen Temperley’s fantasia as Jenkin’s longtime pianist. The audience witnesses their friendship grow in an occasionally dull but heartfelt duet filled with dialogue and song. Performances ran from Oct. 20 to Nov. 19 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.
Directed by Spiro Veloudos, the fantasia starts with McMoon singing a jazz melody while wistfully playing the piano. A piano, a table and a chair compromise the set, with a wooden backdrop of a gorgeous elite home. The locations of rehearsal spaces and performance halls are illustrated purely through dialogue. Time is represented through Jenkin’s costume changes—which grow increasingly flamboyant toward her final performance. This gives the audience no distractions from the pair’s raw relationship.
McGarrahan’s McMoon conveys all the admiration and exasperation the pianist felt toward Jenkins. His patience for her relentless bravado and his shock at her wailing voice during their first rehearsal created an affection and urge to cheer him on. His fluid soliloquies, delivered a few feet from the audience, left a powerful impression—though he failed to direct his speeches to audience members seated on the far right and left. Above all else, McGarrahan’s smooth-as-whiskey voice and flawless piano playing gave the fantasia the feel of the 1920’s.
Barrett played a Jenkins laced with idiosyncrasies, from a slight waddle and hunch in the way she walked to how she leaned from side to side as she sang shrill melodies. She spoke in an incredibly pompous, high and even tone throughout the whole production: her eyebrows rarely lowered. The audience cringed in the best way possible every time she butchered a famous sonata. Although laughter greeted her singing consistently, the performances grew dull and melted into one another. No distinct differences separated each sharply performed song besides an outfit change. This may have been to provide historical accuracy, but I soon hoped for her performances to end. Much to her credit, Barrett’s vocal prowess leaked into her purposefully poor renditions through her vocal clarity, projection, and consistency.
However dull, the repetition yielded a priceless reward. Jenkin’s final appearance after she dies in McMoon’s recollection is one of elegance and triumph. The character returns to sing Ave Maria the way she imagined herself singing, and Barrett’s genuine Soprano is breathtaking. Her vibrato sustained through the highest of notes, her posture was dominant in an exquisite red gown, and she rendered an audience who spent an entire night laughing at her speechless.
Barrett and McGarrahan’s chemistry was tangible, and the production did more than justice to the fantasia and the production Lyric Stage produced several years ago. The precise lighting that separated McMoon’s mind from memory and the elaborate costumes Jenkins changed into every scene also deserve notable mention. Although the show’s less engaging banter leaves some to be desired, ‘Souvenir’ evoked many smiles and a nostalgic warmth.