ShareThis Page

The Rep's offbeat 'Souvenir' keeps the laughter real

| Monday, Sept. 29, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Jeff Swensen
Jill Keating and Jeff Howell in 'Souvenir'
Jeff Swensen
Jeff Howell and Jill Keating in 'Souvenir'

For most of us, Florence Foster Jenkins is a tiny footnote in the history of American music.

But in the 1940s, she sold out Carnegie Hall (the one in Manhattan, not Oakland), and scalpers who could get their hands on tickets reportedly resold the $2.40 seats for $20.

Her allure was something of a joke. The wealthy society matron who believed she was a great soprano was incapable of singing on key or maintaining rhythm.

That didn't stop her from making records, and a who's-who of New York society packed her annual recitals, which were fundraisers for Jenkins' favorite charities.

She's not unlike the Muppets' Miss Piggy or the Marx Brothers' acting foil Margaret Dumont, whom we love while we laugh at their delusions of being great actresses.

Playwright Stephen Temperley's “Souvenir,” which is playing at the Pittsburgh Playhouse through Oct. 12, resurrects Jenkins and her loyal, but more rational, accompanist Cosme McMoon in a sweetly respectful recounting of her performances and her relationship with the supportive, but somewhat dismayed McMoon.

The play begins in 1964 as McMoon is playing piano at a supper club in Greenwich Village. But it quickly shifts back to his first meeting with Jenkins in 1932 and their relationship that continued into the 1940s.

It's an odd little play that entertains and generates laughter — both at Jenkins' lack of talent and McMoon's conflicted loyalties. As an aspiring songwriter and musician, he's appalled at abetting Jenkins' concerts.

But he's also protective of her and not a little jealous when she, not he, is the one who becomes a success.

The play makes some minor forays into meditations on aesthetics and celebrity status. But the chief pleasure of this minor jewel of a show is watching Jill Keating and Jeff Howell perform.

Howell performed with The Rep last year in “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” but he has most often been seen doing character roles in more than 50 shows with Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. He's delightfully at home slipping between his roles as narrator and participant, letting us hear his inner turmoil while indulging and supporting Jenkins' efforts.

Howell turns out to be a classically trained piano player who can accompany the diva's arias while plunking out popular songs of the period such as “Crazy Rhythm,” which could well be the show's theme song.

Keating has the more difficult job — murdering the notes and pacing for opera's greatest hits such as Adele's “Laughing Song” from “Die Fledermaus” or “The Queen of the Night” from “The Magic Flute.” She does it with great aplomb and an innocence that has you simultaneously rooting for her and guffawing at her grand-dame confidence.

Much of the credit should also go to director Tome Cousin who allows us to laugh at the proceedings while keeping the characters real and the stakes high throughout.

Scenic designer Lindsey B. Mayer creates a lovely formal setting that accommodates multiple locations. Cathleen Crocker-Perry dresses Jenkins with proper period outfits, along with a succession of gloriously funny costumes for her Carnegie Hall extravaganza.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, acarter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.