Some theatres have been around long enough to have become known as reliable producers of certain types of shows. Such is the case with TheatreWorks New Milford, who has mastered the production of small yet dynamic dramas featuring fascinating women. In recent years, the venue has successfully produced shows about Katherine Hepburn, Golda Meir and Lynn Redgrave.
TheatreWorks’ current production, Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir, proves once again that they are the perfect venue for intimate storytelling. This gem of a play is about Florence Foster Jenkins (Priscilla Squiers), a New York socialite and amateur opera singer who was known and ridiculed for her lack of singing talent. The story is told by her accompanist of twelve years, Cosmé McMoon (Greg Chrzczon), in a series of flashbacks and musical vignettes.
This is the third time Ms. Squiers and Mr. Chrzczon have portrayed the performer and musician in Souvenir. This production was originally conceived and presented at Westport Community Theatre under the direction of Ruth Anne Baumgartner. Squiers and Chrzczon recreated their roles once again in Southbury and then arrived in the cozy setting of TheatreWorks New Milford, with additional direction provided by Sonnie Osborne.
The play begins with Cosmé recalling the first time he met Ms. Jenkins. Seated behind the piano, he recounts their relationship through the years. As told through snippets of song and anecdotes, we learn about when he discovered Florence couldn’t sing, about his coaching her through concerts and recordings and finally his recollection of her only public performance at Carnegie Hall. Greg Chrzczon plays the role of Cosmé with great savoir-faire. He is clearly comfortable behind the piano, which is delightful to watch. It is during the narrative of the play that he brings us as difference side of Cosmé. Mr. Chrzczon’s blend of comic timing and sincerity help to create a relationship between the accompanist and the singer that is quite poignant.
Local theatre maven Priscilla Squiers simply shines in the role of Florence Foster Jenkins. Similar to Ms. Jenkins’ audiences of the 20s and 30s, the audience at TheatreWorks would chortle openly whenever Squiers sang, rarely matching pitch or tempo. It is an easy trap with this role to make Florence into a caricature but Squiers is able to solicit just enough laughter without going overboard. Ms. Squiers also brings a deep passion and vulnerability to Florence, which fuels some beautifully done scenes. Special mention should, however, be called to the finale in which Squiers proves what an accomplished performer she is. There is great complexity in singing well but it is even more difficult to intentionally sing badly. Proving that her technical skill is bountiful, Ms. Squiers does both in this production with great aplomb.
Under Ms. Osborne’s guidance, Squiers and Chrzczon deliver strong and moving performances. The play moves swiftly from scene to scene, permitting the audience to join in on a raucous ride without ever stopping too long to chew the scenery. Baumgartner’s and Osborne’s combined directing efforts for this production have resulted in a sharp, enjoyable and interesting evening of theatre.
The technical aspects of this production were impeccable. Rich Pettibone’s set, replete with spinning panels, was bathed in hues of yellow and grey and became Florence’s music salon, the Carnegie Hall stage and a backstage dressing room. The elegant set was complimented by Scott Wyshynski’s warm and inviting lighting.
While Mr. Chrzczon spent the evening in a tuxedo with only a simple change from jacket to tails, Ms. Squiers’ costumes were innumerable. Under the coordination of St. Clair Bayfield, Mary Kulscar and Rhonda Schutz created a splendid array of costumes for Florence, from her beautiful socialite attire to her outrageous performance costumes. Kudos should also be given to dressers Beth Plotkin and Erin Shaughnessy for assisting with the costume changes, some of which seemed to be at lightning speed.
Souvenir is a lighthearted and respectful look at the life of a woman who was passionate about her art and who was convinced that she was good at what she did and that she could “live in the music forever.” This lovely production at TheatreWorks illustrates, through the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, that joy can indeed be achieved by truly believing in yourself and your abilities.
Souvenir continues May 9 through 23. Curtain time is 8:00 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays, with 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees on May 10 and 17. Tickets for all shows are $23 for reserved seating. Students and military personnel with ID will be admitted for $18. Reservations can be made online at www.theatreworks.us or by calling the box office at (860) 350-6863. TheatreWorks is located on 5 Brookside Avenue, just off Route 202 (next to the CVS), in New Milford , CT.