Nancy Sasso Janis
When 'Souvenir' opened last night at TheatreWorks New Milford (with their usual opening night fanfare,) it felt to this reviewer like, well, a souvenir, French for "a remembrance" or "memory." You see, I had experienced this two character play last April at the Westport Community Theatre with this same cast. Sonnie Osborne took over the directing duties from Westport's Ruth Ann Baumgartner for this production in New Milford.
The play with music is a portrait of Florence Foster Jenkins, "a wealthy society eccentric who believed that she was a great soprano when, in fact, she had little sense of pitch, tone, or rhythm." Despite that fact, she became a celebrity and rose to cultist fame. Ms. Osborne continues in her notes, "Was she supremely self-delusional or was she a genius? Maybe a little of both. If she is to be remembered for anything, it would be her voracious tenacity and for the lesson not to leave our music locked up inside us."
Madame Flo's ever-loyal accompanist for twelve years was Mexican-born pianist and composer Cosme McMoon. Set in a New York supper club where he is working in 1964, the maestro narrates the story of his professional relationship with the socialite. During the two acts of the play, he recalls various locations between 1932 to 1944, including the madam's suite at the Ritz Carlton where she gave her early invitation-only recitals, and the stage of Carnegie Hall and it's dressing room.
The character of Florence Foster Jenkins is all about the confidence that she exuded and veteran community theater actress Priscilla Squiers mastered that confidence with flair. Here she gives a brilliant performance of this lady who once said that "people may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say that I didn't sing." Ms. Squires can definitely sing, yet she pulled off the challenge of having to do so badly throughout the majority of this play. I heard the actress say after the performance that she listened to recordings of the actual Mrs. Foster Jenkins performing and noted that at times she was "almost there." Therefore, the result is a mix of almost accurate pitch and true wrong notes, often performed with a look of strong concentration. Not an easy thing to do for any good singer, so I was very impressed.
As Cosme McMoon, Stamford resident Greg Chrzszon made his TheatreWork's debut. Usually behind the scenes as musical director, Mr. Chrzszon spent the entire play either behind the lovely onstage grand piano or acting near it. He brought a comic twinkle to the role of the supportive musician and of course played beautifully the varied pieces of the score. His facial reactions to the most outlandish (and funny) lines delivered by his costar were priceless. What struck me this time was just how important the role of Mr. McMoon is to this play and this talented actor continued to match his gifted leading lady in every way.
I wondered if the always impressive TheatreWorks set would slightly overwhelm this small scale work, but it did not. Thanks to the design of Scott Wyshynski and Richard Pettibone, the music room used for rehearsals was subtly aristocratic and it literally flipped into Carnegie Hall and its dressing room. The pair also designed the lighting that showed it off. Thankfully, the piano was perfectly positioned so that the audience did not miss a single reaction on the face of its player.
The multitude of costume changes were coordinated by St. Clair Bayfield with Mary Kulscar of Westport Community Theatre credited for many of them. Since the narrator never left the stage, he managed his one change onstage, but the leading lady required a change for every scene and a new over-the-top costume for every number in the Carnegie Hall performance. Every single ensemble was exquisitely put together, right down to the finger-waved wig provided by Wigboys which appropriately aged the youthful Ms. Squires.
In the beginning of the play, Mrs. Foster Jenkins notes that those "dreadful newspaper people" will not be invited to her recitals, and Mr. McMoon is grateful to hear that the performances were "not to be reviewed." I laughed alone because I had once again been invited to review the show despite the fact that I had already done so and I am most grateful that I did. Go experience this lovely work by Stephen Temperley that explores a very touching relationship and is also one of the funniest shows I have ever enjoyed.
'Souvenir' continues May 2 8,9,10 15,16,17 22,23. Curtain time is 8:00 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays, with 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees on May 10 and 17. Tickets for all shows are $23 for reserved seating. Students and Military personnel with ID will be admitted for $18. Reservations can be made online at THEATREWORKS.US or by calling the box office at (860) 350-6863. TheatreWorks is located on 5 Brookside Avenue, just off Route 202 (next to the CVS), in New Milford , CT.
Pictured: Greg Chrzczon as Cosme McMoon and Priscilla Squiers as Florence Foster Jenkins in ’Souvenir’ Photo by David Henningsen Photography