If you ask me…

Tom Holehan

“SOUVENIR” & SEMINA AT SEVEN ANGELS THEATRE

This is the second "Souvenir” Connecticut audiences have had the chance to see since its direct-from-Broadway run at the Westport Playhouse last June. Stephen Temperley’s amusing play about opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins has now become a star vehicle for Waterbury’s Seven Angels Artistic Director Semina De Laurentis where the actor has clearly made the role her own. Though the seams still show in Mr. Temperley’s one-joke affair – which is subtitled "A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” – Ms. De Laurentis hits plenty of fine notes in her performance. It’s good to be queen.

A Manhattan society lady and music theatre footnote, Jenkins was a professional singer in the late 1930s with the uncanny ability to never sing a note correctly. In a so-strange-but-it’s-true-scenario, “Souvenir” charts this clueless but somehow endearingly untalented singer’s rise from performing small, personal recitals for her society friends to making a few records to her eventual debut at Carnegie Hall. Cosme McMoon (Tom Frey), who was Jenkins' pianist throughout her career, narrates this quirky story with equal parts bafflement and admiration for the off-key diva.

Playwright Stephen Temperley has constructed little more than a sketch piece, however. With a running time of well over two hours, it is even more evident on a second viewing that “Souvenir” should be condensed. The second act tends to repeat much of what we see in the first. How many times do we have to witness the fact that Florence Foster Jenkins could not sing? How many times must we watch Cosme recoil in horror? It becomes repetitious and tiresome.

At Westport, audiences were lucky to catch the original Broadway team of Tony Award-nominee Judy Kaye as Jenkins and Donald Corren as Cosme. They are a tough act to follow but the accomplished Ms. De Laurentis more than makes the role her own balancing a haughty dignity with girlish exuberance. She possesses expert comic timing and director Julia Kiley seems perfectly in tune with the energetic diva.

Mr. Frey, unfortunately, fails to charm playing the often exasperated Cosme. His role is a crucial one since he is our guide and we see the diva through his eyes. Frey’s piano playing is fine but his vocals are forced and his reactions to the horrific sounds emanating from De Laurentis’ throat are broad and repetitive. Late in the play, however, he does bring something real and poignant to the relationship and that is to his credit.

Although the wide stage at Seven Angels often threatens to swallow this small two-hander, set designer Daniel Husvar manages to suggest a New York supper club, Jenkins’ Ritz Carlton music room, Carnegie Hall and a dressing room with some simple and clever changes. Susan Kinkade’s lighting is shadowy for the supper club sequences but serviceable for the rest of the play and Renee Purdy deserves kudos for keeping up with the ever changing array of costumes (many hilarious!) for Ms. De Laurentis. Fans of the actress – and there clearly are many in the Waterbury area – will not be disappointed.

“Souvenir” continues at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury through May 11. For tickets call 203.757.4676 or visit the Seven Angels website at www.sevenangelstheatre.org.

Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tom@stratford.lib.ct.us. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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