Lyric's "Souvenir": A Legend in Her Own Mind

Leigh Barrett & Will McGarrahan in "Souvenir"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Barrett. McGarrahan. Veloudos. That's about all you need to know about the current revival of the play all three of these artists previously presented at Lyric Stage Company about a decade ago: namely Souvenir, a Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, by Stephen Temperley. If you saw it then (or off-Broadway in 2004, or on Broadway in 2005, or in the movie about the same real-life person just this past year), you owe it to yourself to see how all three of these artists now recreate their hilarious depiction of one of history's most memorable performers. As helmed by Spiro Veloudos, Producing Artistic Director of the company for the last twenty years, there are brought back to life treasured memories, by the entire cast. They would be Leigh Barrett in the title role of aspiring classical concert diva and Will McGarrahan as her accompanist Cosme McMoon. And you're probably laughing already at that improbable duo. As Veloudos notes in the program, in music the term “fantasia” implies improvisation, and this play does precisely that. If you've never encountered these uniquely ungifted characters (played by uniquely gifted actors) before, one must admit to feelings of envy, as there's nothing like coming across this twosome for the first time.

Unless it's the second time. Which is inexplicably even better. Perhaps it's the shock of plain recognition that, yes, they were and are that absurdly enthralling. Maybe it's the most earth-shaking fact that actors, even if they seem perfectly cast, can on second viewing seem recast as amazingly new, fresh and improved. When we first encounter McMoon (oh, that name just makes one swoon) at a Greenwich Village supper club in 1964, we can immediately grasp the depth and density of their commitment. The crowning moment (or nadir) of the public life of this wealthy socialite who sold out Carnegie Hall is at one and the same time a howling success and a career-breaking end. It's a simple demonstrable fact, as evidenced by Jenkins' actual recording of her performance of, among other pieces, the Queen of the Night's solo aria from Mozart's Magic Flute. Friends of this critic who possessed a copy shared it (and may never be spoken to in polite circles again).

Will McGarrahan & Leigh Barrett in "Souvenir"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

How an actor can present a fully grounded character who is totally believable yet impossibly bizarre is a wonder. Barrett has proven her comedic and singing chops before (most recently in the Lyric's version of Gypsy), but this time out she's ready to surprise us again with a drive that entertains relentlessly while subtly revealing how intricate and complex Jenkins was as a celebrity, long before social networking and the internet cloud; she reigned on a cloud of her own in which her audience, then and now, is sublimely complicit in her blissful unawareness. And let's not overlook the reactive contribution of the steadily, increasingly incomprehension on the face of McGarrahan as he accompanies both her and us on this journey (he is also the program's Music Director). They're a perfect match made in auditory heaven (or hell). Either way you see and hear it, it's cause for rejoicing. Never before has such bad been so good.

Creative accompanists include Scenic Designer Skip Curtiss (repeating his terrific work on the 2007 version), Lighting Designer Chris Hudacs and Sound Designer David Wilson, but most especially, Costume Designer Gail Astrid Buckley, whose work on this piece alone should evince belly laughs. But the utmost praise is due to that triple threat of Barrett, McGarrahan and Veloudos, responsible for an uncanny cascade of mind-boggling side-splitters, rib-ticklers and knee-slappers galore. Your attitude toward musical performance may never be quite the same after you've experienced this souvenir of a bygone era. (Or error).

It's become a cliché to praise a piece of comic theater these days as being an escape from the madness of the current White House, but it's true; you couldn't ask for a more entertaining cure (for two hours at least) of madcap mayhem, on offer until November 19th. By all means, go!

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