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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Operatic Comedy

Theater Reviews

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Comedyhas a reputation for being light and insubstantial. It is the stuff that provides levity from negativity and eases stress. However, just as a laugh is not the opposite of a tear, comedy is not the opposite of drama. Both can cover the same ground in ways that are equally compelling. Even the most cerebral concepts can be explored in just as much detail with just as much insight in comedy as they can in drama.

Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir is a shining example of how comedy can cast a light into even the most abstract notions of the nature and value of art. The Skylight presents its production of Temperley’s comedy now through March 30 at the Broadway Theatre Center.

The play, billed as “a comedy with music,” is not actually a musical comedy. Based on a true story, Linda Stephens stars as early 20th-centuryNew York society lady Florence Foster Jenkins.

Unwilling to accept any evidence to the contrary, Jenkins believes herself to be a great soprano who wishes to use her great gift to help the charities she supports. Her singing isn’t just bad—it’s awful. That doesn’t stop her from hiring a pianist to accompany her in a series of concerts. The pianist in question is a struggling musician by the name of Cosme McMoon (played here by former Skylight artistic director Richard Carsey). Cosme reluctantly enters into the partnership, gradually growing more and more exasperated with Jenkins’ success.

The play outlines the first meeting between Jenkins and McMoon, going on to illustrate key moments in their relationship as Jenkins’ success as an unsuspectingly comedic singer takes her all the way to Carnegie Hall. In spite of a few tiresome moments, the production ends up being very well executed. Though the comedy wears thin in repetition, Stephens’ deliberately bad singing comes across quite brilliantly.

The non-musical end of her performance as the soprano who doesn’t know she can’t sing is sweet enough to work well. Most of the work of rendering the mood of any moment however, is handled by McMoon as narrator. Here Carsey clearly shows the kind of charm and charisma that made him capable of tackling the post of artistic director for five years. His musical ability and brilliant sense of comic timing deliver a surprisingly engrossing evening held together by two people, a piano and some costumes.