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

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

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