‘Souvenir’: A repeat very much worth watching

Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan in Souvenir. Photo by Mark S. Howard.

BOSTON – A decade has passed since Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan first graced the stage of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston in Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” the story of Florence Foster Jenkins and her longtime accompanist Cosme McMoon.

It seems the right time for its return. The initial run at the Lyric Stage was a huge success, and the movie version of the story, “Florence Foster Jenkins,” starring Meryl Streep, debuted in the summer of 2016 and earned $27 million at the box office.

Barrett and McGarrahan are older and probably wiser, and they’re able to easily slip back into the roles just as if they were donning a pair of warm slippers, and the warmth and chemistry they project from the stage will have you admiring their artistry all over again, under the capable direction of Spiro Veloudos.

“Souvenir” is described as a”fantasia” because not all that much is known about Jenkins and especially McMoon, allowing Temperley to almost create his characters out of whole cloth.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a life-long lover of music whose career playing the piano was cut short by injury, and she turned her attention to singing. She staged small benefit concerts and annual recitals to support various causes.

Leigh Barrett and Will McGarrahan in Souvenir. Photo by Mark S. Howard.

Jenkins’ singing – as a few old clips and recordings that survive attest – was simply dreadful, but she performed with such enthusiasm and aplomb that audiences responded, and those audiences eventually included the cream of New York City society and luminaries such as Cole Porter.

As hard as it is to sing well – and Barrett has always made it look easy – it may be even more difficult to sing off-key consistently in the same manner.

But Barrett masters the process seemingly as effortlessly as she belted out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in Lyric’s recent production of “Gypsy.”

As “Souvenir” opens, Cosme is looking back 20 years after Jenkins’ death at the age of 76 on Nov. 26, 1944 to the 12 years – 1932-1944 – he spent working with her.

McGarrahan is a very talented musician, and he hasn’t had that many chances to show it on stage in the many roles he’s created since arriving here from Seattle. But here he effortlessly recreates both Jenkins’ classical repertoire and pop tunes of the day.

When they first met, McMoon was a 24-year-old frustrated songwriter who perhaps saw in Jenkins both a way to make ends meet and possibly get some exposure for his tunes, possibly with the help of some of Jenkins’ well-heeled friends. He wrote several tunes for Jenkins. The warmth and earnestness that McGarrahan brings to the part of Cosme is just as vital to the piece as Barrett’s off-key artistry.

McGarrahan as Cosme frequently breaks through the fourth hall to speak directly to the audience, and he tells them that his compassion for Florence eventually turned to grudging admiration for the woman and her full speed ahead attitude towards her “career” and life in general.

He wonders if she truly hears in her head what the rest of the world hears, or something else that is perfectly in tune.

The second act is essentially a recreation of Jenkins’ 1944 concert at the famed Carnegie Hall, where Jenkins dons a different gown or costume for each number. Credit costume designer Gail Astrid Buckley for bringing the various gowns to life, including an absolutely-to-die-for angel costume Jenkins wore while she rendered quite possibly the worst version of “Ave Maria” ever sung.

In the latter stages of their relationship, as Jenkins branched out from her more intimate venues to more treacherous grounds and finally Carnegie Hall, Cosme becomes more protective, trying to shield her from what the audience had long known.

After the audience’s reaction at Carnegie Hall, Jenkins was in tears, wondering if she had “lost it” and should retire. “You’d tell me, Cosme. Wouldn’t you?”

He couldn’t and wouldn’t, of course, and according to Temperley’s telling, never did.

It has become apparent through the years that both McGarrahan and Barrett are two of Veloudos’ favorite people on the Boston theater scene, with good reasons. Barrett follows up her critically acclaimed Mama Rose in “Gypsy” with a very different, but no less skilled portrayal.

I can’t say I’m a big fan of repeats in general, but this one is very much worth watching. So even though you might have seen the original a decade ago, you’ll probably find yourself leaving with a big smile on your face and further appreciation for the talents of McGarrahan, Barrett and Veloudos.

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir.” Directed by Spiro Veloudos. At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Nov. 19. lyricstage.com

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