Review: Northlight’s “Souvenir”

Northlight’s sophisticated comedy sweeter than it sounds

 first note, horiz

Northlight Theatre presents

Souvenir

By Stephen Temperley
Directed by Steve Scott
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Thanksgiving Day 2009 marks the 65th anniversary of the death of the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York society phenomenon of the 1930s and ’40s. A vocalist as passionate as she was talentless, Jenkins, then nearly 60, launched a singing career that brought her a hugely enthusiastic following and propelled her to the heights of a Carnegie Hall recital at the age of 76 — despite having no more ability than when she began.

Florence Playwright Stephen Temperley affectionately and hilariously profiles the off-key but determined Jenkins in his witty, 2004 comedy, Souvenir, delightfully presented by Northlight Theatre in Skokie. A set bare but for a grand piano, phonograph and a music stand focuses attention on the two lone actors who brilliantly bring the eccentric socialite singer back to life: Neva Rae Powers , as Jenkins, and Mark Anders, as her longtime accompanist and enabler, Cosmé McMoon. (They don’t name ’em like that anymore!)

This well-crafted historical fiction concentrates as much — if not more — on McMoon as on Jenkins. The play begins some 20 years after the singer’s death, as the failed composer and pianist, reduced to playing at a piano bar, reminisces in deft monologues punctuated by period songs and flashbacks. Anders’ deadpan delivery and dead-on timing form the hinge pin of the production’s sparkling comedy, ornamented by Powers’ trilling volubility and mercifully brief but uproarious recreations of Jenkins’ performance style.

Imagine Julia Child, crossed with Edith Bunker, singing an aria by Mozart — or “Mr. Mozart,” as Jenkins refers to him. We’re not talking about the deliberately terrible music of comic artists like “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards” (Paul Weston and Jo Stafford), who recorded such subtly awful hits as “Paris in the Spring” in the 1950s, or Leona Anderson, who released the aptly titled “Music to Suffer By” in 1957. Jenkins truly thought herself a great singer, a coloratura with perfect pitch.

Cosme and Florence, piano, vert angel Cosme

McMoon, originally horrified — Anders’ thunderstruck expression when he first hears her is priceless — rather reluctantly takes on the job of accompanist because he needs the money, but gradually becomes charmed by and protective of his elderly patron. The counterpoint between the two characters is delicious. McMoon struggles earnestly to remain diplomatic and keep Jenkins’ illusions alive, despite her own best efforts to expose her flawed warbling to an unkind world … in ever more elaborate costumes. (Costume Designer Theresa Ham does her proud, in both period street wear and the glittering outfits Powers dons for Jenkins’ recitals, especially the reenactment of her ultimate 1944 concert, which just might be worth the ticket price by itself.

The script sticks entirely to Jenkins’ musical career, not touching on her failed marriage or her unconventional love life. We learn a bit more of McMoon, enough to understand his motivations and catch a dark edge that sharpens the play’s sophisticated humor. This is definitely one of those shows that leaves the audience wanting to know more about its characters.

Souvenir is heartwarming, inspiring and very, very funny. Don’t miss it.

Rating: ★★★★

Note: Free parking.

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