Lyceum Theatre, NYC - Nov. 2005

Review by John Kenrick

Attention theatre lovers! Unfurl the banners and call out the marching bands - the glorious Judy Kaye is back on Broadway, and all is right with the world! Okay, there's an awful lot that is not right with this world, but you'll forget all of it for a few blissful hours seeing Ms. Kaye in Souvenir, playwright Stephen Temperley's delicious new comedy at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre.

Despite a slew of songs, Souvenir is not a musical, and although the characters and situation are based on fact, it is definitely not a dramatized history lesson. This show is precisely what it claims to be, a "fantasia" inspired by the real-life collaboration between pianist Cosme McMoon and soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. Jenkins was a socialite who gave a series of charity concerts in the 1930s and 40s that have become the stuff of legend, not because of their quality, but because the woman had a violently uncertain sense of pitch and key. Surviving recordings suggest that Jenkins may not have been the worst amateur singer of all time, but she certainly was the worst to ever play Carnegie Hall.

Souvenir finds McMoon some two decades after Jenkins' death, performing in a Greenwich Village piano bar and reminiscing about the dozen years he worked with "Madame Flo." The play takes a humorous look at the true meaning of music and the art of performing. Is "exactitude" of technique the real goal, or is it the honest expression of the artist's soul? Jenkins is depicted as blissfully incapable of hearing her own vocal inadequacies, and McMoon gradually moves from being an incredulous paid accompanist to standing by her as a faithful and supportive artistic partner. While audiences will come to Souvenir expecting to laugh (and goodness knows there is laughter aplenty here), they will also find themselves touched by a surprisingly appealing story of two people finding friendship.

Director Vivian Matalon has staged this endearing two-hander with flawless grace, making frequent transitions in time and place easy to follow and giving both performers ample opportunity to win our hearts. Temperley has made several much-needed improvements to the script since the show's 2004 Off-Broadway run, and the results are richly entertaining. R. Michael Miller's handsome unit set and Tracy Christensen's period-perfect costuming look all the better under Ann G. Wrightson's impeccable lighting.

And joy of joys, this show is performed without amplification! This is real theatre, and in the relative intimacy of the Lyceum, no one will have any trouble catching every precious word and note. And in another throwback to a happier time, Souvenir boasts just one producer's name above the title. Three cheers to Ted Snowdon for bringing this much needed bon bon to Broadway -- and to the inexplicably undervalued York Theatre Company for nurturing the show over the last few years.

As the long-suffering but ultimately converted McMoon, Donald Corren proves a deft comic actor and a first-rate accompanist - a rare combination indeed. He is the perfect foil for Judy Kaye as she merrily leads the audience through a giddy series of twists and turns. With her extraordinary sense of craft, Kaye turns Jenkins from a laughing stock into a three dimensional character we can actually care about. By the time her Carnegie Hall audience turns on her in gales of derisive guffaws, the Broadway audience (which laughed just as viciously at the start of Souvenir) finds itself unexpectedly on Jenkins' side!

And while I don't want to ruin anything, let me assure you that Kaye's final number will take your breath away. Make no mistake, this lady is giving the performance of a lifetime, one that people will be talking about for years to come.

Don't miss Souvenir, as magical an evening as Broadway has seen in far too many a season. Without so much as a single chandelier, helicopter, puppet or flying cow, this dandy play will remind you what good theatre is all about.

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