Talent is a subjective thing. Why the media or the public embraces one performer and reject another is a question that reverberates throughout the history of all the arts. What helps keeps artists and critics going is the notion that there must be some objective parameters for greatness, something everyone could agree on. What’s left after the chaos of subjective opinions is the artist’s simple desire to do something well and to demonstrate a joy in his or her work. On a basic level, nothing else really matters. That’s the lesson gently provided by playwright Stephen Temperley’s hilarious and ultimately moving “Souvenir.”
In 1927, budding young musician Cosme McMoon (Donald Corren) agrees to work as a recital pianist for society matron Florence Foster Jenkins (Judy Kaye). She describes herself as a singer with perfect pitch, so he is horribly surprised upon discovering that she may as well be tone-deaf. She’s a terrible singer who squawks like a throttled chicken and believes musical notes are meant only as a loose guide, but he needs to pay his rent so he stays on. He dreads their first charity recital at the Ritz Carlton ballroom, but in time, her caterwauling is developing a following. Lost in her vision of beautiful music, Jenkins doesn’t realize that the audience is laughing at her, and McMoon begins to feel protective of her innocent yet deeply felt art.
Kaye achieves a remarkable feat as Jenkins, playing her as one who deserves both ridicule and empathy as Jenkins does the best she can with what she’s got. Her perf demonstrates true perfect pitch, from projecting haughty confidence to utter hurt and vulnerability, and her “singing” is a raucous delight that leaves the audience helpless with laughter. Her final rendition of “Ave Maria,” sung the way Jenkins hears it in her mind, is breathtaking and lovely. Corren brings multiple skills to bear as he sings and plays the piano very well, but his comedic timing is expert. He grounds the show with undeniable charm.
Temperley’s play is explosively funny yet compassionate, and director Vivian Matalon makes sure this production — if not Jenkins — hits all the right notes. David Budries’ sound design evokes the unkind, hooting audiences, and Tracy Christensen’s increasingly silly costumes for Jenkins’ Carnegie Hall concert are crowd-pleasers. R. Michael Miller’s set is a bit bland.