Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
A gem of a comedy is now on stage at the Westport Country Playhouse. Can “Souvenir” rightly be called a comedy? Or is it a Pagliacci tale—that of a clown with tragedy just below the surface?
“Souvenir” is based on the true-life saga of one Florence Foster Jenkins (1868—1944), a self-proclaimed diva who sadly lacked musical talent. But Jenkins forged on, giving concerts with supreme self-confidence. Biographers point out that she became famous for her lack of rhythm, pitch, tone and overall singing ability. Nonetheless—or rather because of that--she became enormously popular, the butt of a joke, and, in her own way, a celebrity. She was oblivious to the realities, believing that people laughed with her, not at her.
Playwright Stephen Temperley has turned the Jenkins story into a fascinating character study. And now, after its Broadway run, the show comes to Westport. The gifted acting team—Judy Kaye and Donald Corren as the diva and her accompanist, respectively—turns the show into a tour de force. It is a joy to watch them play off each other—the clown and the straight man. The play itself, however, comes in for criticism. This one-joke comedy could certainly be tightened up, with less repetition (however charmed the performances may be) and more suitable for a one-act play.
The essence of great comedy is to play it deadpan. And Judy Kaye gets it just right. She is a comic figure who comes on completely seriously. Kaye puts aside her own formidable singing skills (as any one knows who has seen “Phantom of the Opera,” “Sweeney Todd” and other shows) and becomes “the first lady of the sliding scale” (as Jenkins was referred to posthumously). It cannot be easy for a trained professional to deliver flat notes and ear-piercing screeches, but Kaye handles it with aplomb. Even her costumes (courtesy of Tracy Christensen) are hilarious, calculated to bring out the worst in Jenkins’ dumpy figure.
Corren, too, gives a brilliant performance as Cosme McMoon, Jenkins’ one-time accompanist, combining piano-playing, reminiscences, and dialogue, as the story moves back and forth in time. His timing is perfect, and his facial expressions aptly reveal the range of emotions he cannot share with his employer.
Kaye and Corren are in fact mesmerizing. Their pas de deux is perfection. Yet even as we laugh at Kaye’s performance, we temper our laughter with pity for the sad, deluded Florence Foster Jenkins.
-- Irene Backalenick
Jan. 12, 2005