There are two things to keep in mind when attending Souvenir, a most memorable comedy with music now playing at TheatreWorks in New Milford. First: this work by Stephen Temperley and directed by Sonnie Osborne is based on facts as told by Cosme McMoon, accompanist to Florence Foster Jenkins. The second: Priscilla Squiers is an exceptionally fine vocalist, playing the role of Jenkins, a rich socialite who believed she was a great soprano, but was actually tone deaf and terrible.
From start to finish, this two-person play never stops delighting the audience. Stories almost too outrageous to be true are told by piano accompanist and actor Greg Chrzczon, as the socialite’s mentor and accompanist Cosme McMoon. As the story unfolds we learn that McMoon was a struggling musician/composer who agreed to accompany Jenkins for a private charity concert. After he hears her sing and realizes that she has no sense of pitch or key, he only agrees to take on the job because the recital is not being reviewed, is not open to the public, and he could use the money to pay his rent.
However, one concert is not enough for Jenkins as she continually attracts larger audiences. McMoon is always mindful of his own reputation and cautious of his collaboration with Jenkins. He realizes her performances are seen as comic, while she believes her fans seriously appreciate her voice. While audiences laugh hysterically at Jenkins’ off-key vocals, McMoon becomes more and more protective of Jenkins. He stayed on as her accompanist for 12 years.
It is the growth of the relationship between the two characters that is really at the heart of this endearing play that starts off in the 1960s, and looks back at his experiences some 20 years past, making this a true memory play. The audience sees how McMoon gradually changes his attitude towards Jenkins and his belief that “What matters most is the music you hear in your head.”
What is so special about this off-key opera singer is that she has complete dedication to the art of music and has an uncompromising sense of confidence. She just doesn’t hear herself and is most likely tone deaf. She doesn’t hear the audience’s laughter either. When audiences stifle their laughter by sticking handkerchiefs in their mouths, she believes they do so to avoid sobbing out loud. Even when she listens to an awful recording of herself, she doesn’t hear how much the pitch is off.
The relationship between this accompanist and singer has its fair share of drama especially when McMoon calls Jenkins a “silly woman” — to which she takes great offense. It nearly ends their relationship, but music eases the tension and keeps them collaborating.
As for actors Chrczon and Squiers, whom I saw in their debut performance of this show in Westport last spring, they have gotten even better than their previous rave-reviewed performances. Chrzczon is so natural and likeable a narrator and such a fine accompanist that whether he is playing a happy tune, stepping out of a song to share an anecdote, or playing a few strains of an opera, he never fails to entertain while advancing the storyline.
Priscilla Squiers, who not only plays such a challenging role but also designed her own costumes, has claimed this role with repeated superior performances. Her facial expressions as she warms up for singing as well as her gracious gestures win the audience over. Just as Jenkins’ audiences laughed hysterically, so too TheatreWorks audiences will laugh out loud. At a recent performance, some of the audience members were crying they were laughing so much. However, be prepared for the final scene, when you will be blown away by Squiers’ most memorable moments.
While there is music in the show, this is not a musical. As the subtitle accurately states, this is “A fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins.” The play made it to Broadway where it was nominated for several awards. The New Milford production runs through May 23. Box office: 860-350-6863.
Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]