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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Liz McCartney Makes George Street Souvenir Special

Also see Bob's review of Romance/Romance

Jim Walton and Liz McCartney
Souvenir is based on the last twelve years of the life of Florence Foster Jenkins. It is an intimate, two-hand comedy, albeit that it is filled with music, recalling the cult success of this New York society matron who performed classical song recitals during the 1930's and '40s, culminating in a sold out recital at Carnegie Hall. She did this despite the fact that she was a truly awful, tone deaf singer. Souvenir has arrived at the George Street Playhouse little more than a year after its two month Broadway run, and the view from here is that Souvenir is now a considerably better entertainment than it was on Broadway.

Some background cobbled together from various and sometimes contradictory sources will enhance your enjoyment of the piece. Florence Foster was born in Pennsylvania in 1868. As a young woman, she wanted to go to Europe to study to be a singer, but, apparently due at least in part to the horrendous quality of her voice, her father, a wealthy Wilkes-Barre banker and lawyer, refused to provide the necessary funds. Florence then eloped to Philadelphia with a young doctor, Frank Jenkins. The marriage ended in divorce in 1902, and Florence contributed to her own support by working as a pianist and teacher for the next seven years. When her father died in 1909, he bequeathed her and her mother a considerable fortune. With her mother's approval, she was permitted by to take singing lessons again, but not to sing in public. However, after her mother died in 1928, Florence at the age of 60 inherited the full family fortune, becoming completely free to follow her own course.

Now author Stephen Temperley begins Souvenir by introducing us to Madame Jenkins' piano accompanist Cosme McMoon as he is playing show tunes in a New York piano bar in 1964. McMoon takes us back to 1932, when he was a struggling young pianist-composer of 29, and was asked by Jenkins to prepare her for, and accompany her at, a public concert. Jenkins, who is played more as a middle-aged woman of indeterminable years rather than as elderly, tells him that she had sung for friends at some private parties, and that they had suggested that she perform publicly.

Jenkins sings for him, and it is obvious that her singing is excruciatingly and hilariously bad. Jenkins bleats and screeches off-key and off-beat. Yet she hears herself as singing divinely, a pure coloratura with perfect pitch and an incredible high C. Later on, when Jenkins is frightened as a taxi in which she is riding is involved in a accident, she involuntarily emits a scream which she hears as an F Sharp, "several notes above high C" and incorporates it into her repertoire.

McMoon initially agrees to become Jenkins' accompanist only after she assures him that the concert will be in the ballroom of New York's Ritz-Carlton Hotel (she resides in a suite there) where there will be a small audience composed of friends, that the proceeds will be donated to her favorite charity, and that the recital will not be reviewed.

Certainly, McMoon can use the income to supplement what he is earning from giving lessons, and he will be able to write his art songs and practice for his own recital. The collaboration and friendship between Jenkins and McMoon continues for twelve years. Both the play and Mme. Jenkins' career reach their apogee in October, 1944, when she gives a sold out recital for the benefit of American GIs at Carnegie Hall.

(It should be noted that Madame Jenkins played a more proactive role in molding her "career," and was likely a lot tougher and more sharp edged than portrayed here.)

It does not diminish the talented work OF Judy Kaye in the Broadway production of Souvenir to recognize that Liz McCartney's performance is revelatory. This is a role she was born to play. She fully inhabits Mme. Jenkins. Totally the society dowager, there is miraculously no hint of comic exaggeration in her performance. With the humor rising organically from her torturous singing and delight shining from within her as she performs, McCartney makes Jenkins both funnier and more believable than one would have imagined possible. Thanks to the fluency of Liz McCartney, Souvenir no longer feels like an increasingly deadly one-joke comedy as it marches to the finish line.

As intended by author Stephen Temperley, the role of Cosme McMoon is now on a more even footing with that of Mme. Jenkins. Here, perception may trump reality. It no longer feels that Temperley's portrait of an ambitious artiste whose failures force him to accept his mediocrity calls for greater elucidation. In the artful performance of Jim Walton, a weary McMoon (whose persona here is a complete invention) engagingly displays a growing warmth for his time with Mme. Jenkins, despite the fact that it will always epitomize his failures. But none of this means that McMoon cannot be a terrific lounge pianist. And Walton's McMoon surely is. His variations on the Gershwin's "Crazy Rhythm" make for first rate entertainment.

The greater intimacy of George Street, and the narrower, more open and totally felicitous set by Karl Eigsti, (the terrific costumes —one for each aria at Carnegie Hall - which faithfully mirror descriptions of those actually worn by Jenkins remain those of Tracy Christensen) are significant pluses. Certainly, director Anders Cato is due the highest of praise for the major improvement in the impact of Souvenir. His major coup is the casting of Liz McCartney.

By all means go to George Street and enjoy the comic delight of Liz McCartney's re-creations of Mme Jenkins' performances of such arias as Gounod's "Jewel Song" from Faust, and Mozart's "The Queen of the Night" from The Magic Flute, as well as her even more deliriously funny (for this lowbrow) "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" as Mme. Jenkins' Carnegie Hall concert is recreated in an extended comic finale. And, at the end, her beautiful rendition of the "Ave Maria" (Schubert) as Mme. Jenkins must surely have heard it in her head. Other critics have found this ending to Temperley's comedy too sentimental. Let them tell it to the opening night George Street audience which greeted its presentation with a rapturous ovation.

Souvenir continues performances (Eves: Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m. / Sun. 7p.m. (excludingluding. 3/25); Mats: Thurs. 3/8; Sat.(excluding. 3/10)-Sun. 2 p.m.) through March 25, 2007 at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online:

Souvenir by Stephen Temperley; directed by Anders Cato

Florence Foster Jenkins…….Liz McCartney
Cosme McMoon………………...Jim Walton

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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