In America, mavericks are modern-day heroes to be lauded and emulated. From early childhood we are urged to go our own way, do what we want, follow our dreams, and use our gifts. But what if our gifts suck? In this era when spelling your name right gets you a pat on the back at school, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we have great abilities. What if those abilities are nonexistent? If that’s the case, we probably won’t be as lucky as Florence Foster Jenkins, a singer who unknowingly turned her lack of talent into a hot ticket in 1930s and ’40s New York.
Souvenir is a humor-laden tale told from the perspective of pianist Cosme McMoon (played by Randy Risher), who accompanies off-key diva Florence (Susie Hallatt) on her journey from singing arias for her Park Avenue friends to becoming a national laughingstock. Flo’s unaware of her distinct lack of talent, “feeling” the music rather than performing it in tune.
McMoon plays along. It pays the rent, and he gains great affection for the self-deceiving soloist. He is incredibly tactful about her aptitude, to keep his job and avoid bursting her happy bubble. He achieves many of his dreams — cutting records, getting his sheet music printed, and ultimately performing them at Carnegie Hall — but never in the way he expects. All the while, everyone is laughing at Flo’s tunelessness as she warbles along obliviously.
Playwright Stephen Temperley takes a true story and lays it out simply for the audience to laugh at and think about, examining the themes of self-delusion and the contempt that lurks behind “polite” society. McMoon is a man most people will be able to relate to, compromising his dreams and beliefs for the sake of money and friendship. Florence’s fame causes him to question his own talent; is he fooling himself into thinking the songs he writes have any merit, or is he as talentless as his patron? It’s a poignantly posed question all unsuccessful artists ask themselves.
A great deal of this show’s success rides on Risher, reacting to the terrible songs while his character tries to retain some dignity and shield Florence from total ridicule. Hallatt revels in her role of the not-so-great songstress, packing her painfully bad ballads with energy and effort. Although her character is outré, lampooning every drama queen you’ve ever known, she keeps her performance consistent and sincere throughout.
For a play that hinges on songs like “Crazy Rhythm” and “Ave Maria,” Souvenir has surprisingly strong visuals, with Hallat swaying and moving her arms to the music. Costume designer Julie Ziff provides a number of dazzling gowns for Hallatt, all larger than life, complete with outrageous hats and shimmering jewelry. For a wartime tribute version of “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” Hallatt dresses up in uniform. For casual practice sessions she dons purple clothes with an enormous pearl necklace.
The purple helps Hallatt stand out on Keely Enright’s classy monochrome set. With a few columns, a black piano, and silver furnishings, Enright evokes black-and-white Hollywood movies. Enright also directed the show and designed the lighting. She maintains a screwball pace that keeps the thin plot moving throughout. Musical director Justin Wham manages to keep Hallatt’s songs discordant without them being annoying.
Souvenir continues to explore the same subject as the Playhouse’s last show, Shipwrecked: the nature of success in a celebrity-obsessed culture that values instant spectacle over long-term profundity. This professionally mounted production has spectacle, depth, clever dialogue, and a knowing comedic tone that keeps its audience laughing from start to finish.