Review: 'Souvenir' at Buck Creek Playhouse

Cathy Tolzmann and Kevin D. Smith in 'Souvenir.'

Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins

Buck Creek Playhouse; through Jan. 15

4 stars

Florence Foster Jenkins was a terrible singer convinced she was a nightingale. Embraced by New Yorkers who found her so bad she was good, she eventually began releasing records of her tortured warbling and, in 1944, played a sold out performance at Carnegie Hall. Stephen Temperley's 2005 Souvenir is a broad, affectionate, funny two-character production focusing on Jenkins' oblivious caterwauling and the relationship between the songstress and her accompanist, Cosme McMoon.

As Jenkins, Cathy Tolzmann commits fully to her character. At first her singing sounds impossibly overdone, but listen to the playing of Jenkins' record during the play — it's the real Jenkins you're hearing and proof positive that Tolzmann isn't exaggerating. Her physical presence is perfect: She resembles frequent Marx Brothers' foil Margaret Dumont and the legendary drag queen Divine, and I mean that as a compliment to all three performers. Watching Jenkins glide around the stage, maddeningly self-absorbed most of the time, with only occasional remarks about her audience (she complains of “the modern mania for accuracy”) is a treat.

Kevin D. Smith ably plays accompanist Cosme McMoon, tickling the ivories and sharing his thoughts on being tied to such a memorably eccentric figure. During the first act, McMoon mostly alternates between being mortified and astounded. The dynamic between the actors is funny and sweet, but I wondered what was left to do for the second act. Nevermind, we are presented with a stunning recreation of the Carnegie Hall performance as well as a beguiling look at McMoon's evolving relationship with Jenkins and his concept of what constitutes socially acceptable music. The swing towards camp and sentiment in act two is a lot to swallow, but Tolzmann and Smith pull it off.

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