Mark S. Howard
It’s been a full decade since Leigh Barrett swanned across the stage in Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir’’ as Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite fabled for her serenely oblivious, wholly off-key concert recitals in the 1930s and 1940s.
Between then and now, a certain Meryl Streep played Jenkins on film. But in an utterly delightful production of “Souvenir’’ at Lyric Stage Company, it takes Barrett no time at all to re-inhabit and reclaim the role of the wayward warbler.
Once again, as in 2007, the invaluable Will McGarrahan costars as Cosme McMoon, Florence’s long-suffering piano accompanist — and no one suffers more entertainingly than McGarrahan — and once again Spiro Veloudos is at the helm.
“Souvenir’’ unfolds on a set of elegant simplicity (by Skip Curtiss, who also handled scenic design for the earlier Lyric Stage production) in a series of flashback scenes narrated by Cosme in the mid-1960s, recalling his stint accompanying Florence in her annual recitals at the Ritz-Carlton from 1932 to 1944.
This is Barrett’s second consecutive portrayal at Lyric Stage of a larger-than-life figure driven to extremes by the power of unshakable delusion: Just two weeks ago she wrapped up her dynamic star turn as Mama Rose in “Gypsy.’’ By pretty much placing the fate of nearly three months of his theater’s fall season in Barrett’s hands, Veloudos, Lyric Stage’s producing artistic director, has placed a sizable bet on her ability to deliver.
That gamble pays off big-time in “Souvenir’’: Barrett delivers a sublime performance in which a kind of double virtuosity is on display. She is a great singer playing a very bad one, and making us believe she is as bad as she sounds. As Barrett misses and mangles note after note, it’s akin to watching LeBron James soar in for an easy dunk, only to clang the ball off the rim. In Barrett’s case, of course, it’s deliberate. Crucially, though, there’s no trace of a wink in her performance, no subtly telegraphed mockery.
Instead, what comes across in “Souvenir’’ is affection for Florence, who is possessed of a genuine passion for Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Puccini, Verdi, and Strauss — and determined to show that love by singing the living daylights out of their music. The wider world sees her and her cracked soprano as a joke, but she views herself as a “true coloratura,’’ whose “particular gift is purity of tone,’’ who is possessed of perfect pitch, no less. However preposterous her sense of self, Barrett’s Florence never relinquishes her hold on our sympathy.
Even in the most outlandish scenes, and there are plenty of those, Barrett leaves Florence her dignity. And when that dignity is wounded — in the one time that Cosme erupts at Florence — the play of emotions across Barrett’s face is quietly devastating.
Which is not to say that “Souvenir’’ is not deeply funny. It is. When Barrett’s Florence listens to a recording of her absolutely slaughtering the Queen of the Night’s aria from “The Magic Flute,’’ she wears an expression of pride and contentment. Indeed, she can find only one flaw, she says: Cosme’s playing is off. This she tells the flabbergasted pianist kindly, with forbearance and understanding.
At that moment and many others, such as when Florence launches into her interpretation of a song Cosme composed, McGarrahan’s pole-axed expression is priceless. He consistently generates comedy out of Cosme’s ongoing struggle to contain himself and conceal the truth from “Madame Flo’’ — of whom Cosme is very protective — about her abysmal lack of talent. McGarrahan masterfully conveys the war within Cosme between disbelief and apoplexy on one hand and discretion and compassion on the other.
Everyone, from the stars to director Veloudos to costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley, seems to be having a grand time in “Souvenir.’’ Buckley has done outstanding work in creating an array of lavishly eye-popping outfits for Barrett’s Florence, who changes into a different costume for each song in her career-capping (and -ending, at least in “Souvenir’’) recital at Carnegie Hall. I won’t spoil the effect; this parade of garments needs to be seen to be disbelieved. This is that rare show when the costumes alone are almost worth the price of admission.
It’s the actress inhabiting those costumes who really makes “Souvenir’’ special, however. Early on in the play, Florence tells Cosme: “I only hear the music.’’ At the end, Barrett steps into the spotlight, and we finally get to hear the music that Florence hears. Before, you may have shuddered every time she opened her mouth, but this time you’ll shiver.
Play by Stephen Temperley. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through Nov. 19. Tickets from $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
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