Florence Foster Jenkins might be the world’s worst opera singer, but for me, she’s music to my ears.
“Souvenir,” onstage at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, is a charmer of a show about a wealthy socialite who simply wants to share her musical gifts with others and raise money for charities. There’s just a tiny little problem: She can’t carry a tune.
Stephen Temperley’s two-person play is inspired by the real-life singing wonder and told through the eyes of her devoted accompanist Cosmé McMoon, as he reflects back on their wild musical journey starting in 1930s New York City.
“Souvenir” is a sweet and poignant show, but it’s not without laughs, big ones. When Florence first sings for Cosmé, clutching her handkerchief as she warbles her way through a number, it’s not just the shocked pianist who’s taken aback by those ear-piercing high pitches; the audience, too, has felt the force of her astonishing vocal power. She truly has a voice that can reach the heavens.
Cosmé takes on the gig as her accompanist, which allows him to make rent and write his own songs, but becomes supportive of the delusional woman’s singing dreams and protective of her, too—putting a positive spin on any negative reactions from listeners.
What began as recitals for her upper-crust circle of friends at the Ritz–Carlton eventually grows as Florence dreams of bigger crowds to enjoy the arias she loves so dearly, culminating in a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. Kyna Chilcot’s costumes really shine here, as Florence has special outfits for seriously every song—one even features angel wings.
Patrick A’Hearn, Riverside’s producing artistic director, directs this uplifting production with precision as it traces the odd-couple relationship between this fantastically terrible singer and talented young pianist.
Riverside favorite Andrea Kahane plays the role of this eccentric singer to sublime perfection. It’s wonderful to watch Kahane butcher songs by the likes of Mozart, Strauss and Verdi—plus Cosmé’s own compositions—all the while knowing this actress has an incredibly beautiful voice. Well cast as Cosmé is Carson Eubank, who has served as music director for a number of shows here. For his Riverside stage début, he hits his role out of the park, performing with such ease as he guides audiences through Cosmé and Florence’s delightful relationship, which at turns became tense because of the pianist’s frustration with his partner.
“Souvenir” marks Riverside’s big return to the stage after going dark in March due to the ongoing pandemic. The previously scheduled and highly anticipated “Bright Star,” the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell bluegrass musical, has been put on the backburner for now, but its turntable stage (minus the spinning) does make an appearance in this play’s minimal set design by scenic coordinator Frank Foster. A piano, a gramophone and a velvety chair make up the set’s mainstays backed by purple and pink drapes, which add some nice lovely color.
Riverside has taken every possible precaution to ensure the safety of its guests and staff. Of course, masks are required, and in this new normal, that also means temperature checks upon entry, socially distant seating, one-way markers and digital programs. Dinner service has been dropped, however, drinks and lighter fare can be enjoyed in the events center.