The York Theatre, NYC - November 2004

Reviewed by John Kenrick

Silly me -- I thought I was going to see the York Theatre Company's production of Souvenir in order to review it. As it turned out, I was the one who wound up getting a review.

I am a laugher, especially when I attend a comedy -- musical or otherwise. Souvenir is a comedy with music, a "fantasia" based on the brief but celebrated career of the infamous operatic soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. So I thought nothing of joining in with most of the audience by responding to the first act with audible delight. After all, what else is one supposed to do at a comedy?

Apparently, the York Theatre's usher has different ideas on this subject. Seated in front of me, she made a point of beginning and ending the intermission by loudly telling me how unappreciated my laughter was. She didn't say a word to the woman (two seats over) who crinkled cellophane wrappers throughout the first half, or the the fellow (right in front of her) who let his watch alarm chime the half hours. Oh no -- she had to tell me how "inappropriate" it was for me to laugh at this comedy with music. "Your laughter distracts people from enjoying this show, you know." She resumed her seat just as the lights dimmed, making it impossible for me to say anything in response.

You might suggest that I would have done well to disregard this humorless darling (who did not so much as giggle once during the first act), but I'm afraid that would not do. For one thing she was an usher -- and whether paid or a volunteer, she was a representative of the theatre. As such, I have always believed ushers deserve respect. Moreover, this was not the first time I have received a complaint regarding my laughter at the York. When I attended a performance there this past fall, someone who sat in front of me posted a blistering message on All That Chat castigating me for my laughter. It inspired a fine web debate, a good part of which was supportive of my theatrical etiquette. But I fear this is becoming a pattern. For some reason, audience members at the York find laughter like mine disturbing -- you know, the kind that happens when intelligent humor is pouring forth from the stage?

In my three decades of theatre going, I have never intentionally interfered with anyone else's good time. So I spent the second act of Souvenir in complete silence, despite some rather giddy moments. If nothing else, I had no desire to be ejected from the auditorium. Everyone else around me continued to laugh heartily -- except, of course, for the dear usher, who still didn't get any of it. But at least she did not have to complain any further about my behavior.

Despite this humiliating incident, I gave Souvenir as fair a hearing as possible. There is much to enjoy here, despite the production suffering from several shortcomings that compromise its strengths. R. Michael Miller's simple unit set is both handsome and versatile, and Tracy Christensen's costumes capture the period with style -- particularly, some ravishing concert gowns. Ann G. Wrightson provides superb lighting throughout. But director Vivan Matalon has staged the proceedings with a less than imaginative hand -- I for one expected something more from this justly admired director. Stephen Temperley's often delightful script has too many slow patches. Currently running well over two hours, Souvenir could be reduced by a half hour, to the benefit of everyone involved -- particularly the audience.

Veteran Broadway musical director Jack Lee portrays Cosme McCoon, the long-suffering accompanist who worked with Jenkins though a series of vocal recitals in the 1940s. Jenkins was so hopelessly off-pitch that audiences came to laugh -- and she blithely heard nothing but approval in their camp-inspired applause. Lee's piano accompaniment is flawless, and he brings real charm to McCoon's moments of exasperation with his tone deaf singer. But his command of the script was so shaky that many lines were repeated several times -- this despite his visibly reading many of those lines from crib notes on the piano. Lee is a great talent, no question, and it is never easy to find a gifted accompanist who can also act.

It is even harder to find someone to depict the almost legendary Florence Foster Jenkins -- unless, of course, you have the marvelous Judy Kaye on hand. Ms. Kaye is one of the most magical talents ever to grace the musical stage, one with such stellar talent that nothing (including the un-memorized dialogue of co-stars or the idiocy of brain dead ushers) can dim the pleasure she radiates from a stage. Only a flawless musician like Kaye could deliver classic arias with such merciless, off-key accuracy. (Her brilliantly calculated vocal clunkers must be heard to be believed!) And only an actress with Kaye's dramatic gifts could depict this self-deluding woman with such sympathy. What could have easily been a one-dimensional cartoon character becomes surprisingly human and sympathetic. Her plaintive "I am not a silly woman" might have been campy in lesser hands -- instead, it caught me off guard and took my breath away. Kaye's performance, in turns hilarious and heartbreaking, is a rare joy.

While Souvenir would benefit from further revisions, that is no reason not to catch Judy Kaye in one of the most brilliant performances of the year. If you love to laugh, you are in for a good time. Just make sure you aren't stuck sitting behind a humorless usher. As for me, I will continue to look forward to seeing musicals old or new at the York, one of the brightest spots in a world in desperate need of musicals. However, I will from now on do my best while at the York to keep my laughter to myself. (Fat chance!)

Souvenir ran at The York Theatre through Jan. 2, 2005.

Link to: The York Theatre's Website

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