There are a lot of performances to choose from in December, and that’s a spectacular way to end the year. Among them is Souvenir, a two-person musical based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (Sarah Day)—an infamous opera singer with much more enthusiasm than talent — and her frustrated, but tender-hearted accompanist Cosme McMoon (Thomas Kasdorf). So why add Four Seasons Theatre’s Souvenir to your ticket wish list, when you could see Christmas ghosts and carolers, sway with dancing snowflakes and nutcrackers, or sing along with the brass section on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas?” Well. . .
It’s a two-person show that absolutely fills the theater.
Often small cast shows feel small; conversations are intimate, action is limited, and the writing is forced. Directors try to compensate for the lack of bodies on stage by adding “business” that doesn’t help. Souvenir rises above all of these challenges, in part because Joseph Varga’s gorgeous layers of latticework that form the set are literally very big, and that sets the tone for the larger-than-life personalities of the piece. The audience is also an essential part of the cast, which expands the play immensely. When Jenkins and McMoon perform in front of 2,000 people at Carnegie Hall, we are her onlookers who must choose whether to laugh at her lack of skill or admire her bravery.
It’s very different from the movie.
If you’ve seen the 2016 Florence Foster Jenkins’s biopic featuring Meryl Streep in the title role and Hugh Grant as her agent/caregiver/husband, you may think there’s no need to revisit this story. But I would argue that the two pieces work very well together. No, you’re not going to see an actress dressed as an angel, hung from the ceiling by wires, completing a musical “tableau” in this play. And you’re not going to see hordes of extras walking down New York streets in the 1940s. But in this iteration you are allowed to concentrate on one, nuanced relationship instead of a dozen. And there’s nothing like being in the room during a recital gone a bit wrong, to really experience the concert.
It’s both cringeworthy and very funny.
When was the last time you could respond honestly to a note sung miserably flat and share that experience not only other audience members, but with another member of the cast? Thomas Kasdorf’s portrayal of Cosme — the incredulous, increasingly horrified witness to Florence’s mistreatment of classical music — is well worth the price of admission. He ties himself in knots stifling laughter, outrage and physical pain trying to hide, or at least temper, his reactions to Florence’s lack of ability, coupled with her complete confidence.
It features Sarah Day in a lead role.
As an actress “of a certain age,” Sarah Day has been increasingly relegated to the roles of dowager aunt, mother superior, even older dowager aunt, and a plethora of ancient maids. She’s wonderful in these supporting parts, but it’s refreshing to see her in a lead role again, with a real arc and a lot of shading in the character. Her comic instincts are spot on; pinching her voice, attacking each phrase and contorting her mouth until she looks like a large bass. But her dramatic skills are at their peak too. Watching her perform the same ritual each time she gets ready to sing is fascinating. With closed eyes and gentle, floating arms she seems to transport herself to another sphere, where the music in her head really does match the sounds emanating from her body. (As a fun plus, Day is absolutely radiant in a dozen elaborate costumes designed for her by Scott Rott.)
It’s about two people who really love each other, in the best sense of the word.
Normally when you have two characters onstage, there is going to be a plot or subplot about love. I mean, why force them together if their relationship isn’t going to progress to something passionate, tempestuous and urgent? Well, because love takes a lot of forms outside sexual attraction and a deep, abiding friendship that is built up over a decade is rarely depicted onstage. While both performers enter into their contracts wanting to be recognized for their individual musical contributions, they end the play being more devoted to one another and to their partnership than to their own ambitions. Neither one was ever destined to be a great musician. But they certainly nurtured each other to become extraordinary people.
Now that’s a story of hope and joy that’s definitely worth seeing this holiday season.