Review: Peterborough Players launch season with ‘Souvenir’

Ashley Saari

Ashley Saari

Brett Ryback and Joy Hermalyn as Florence Foster Jenkins and her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, in the Peterborough Players’ performance of “Souvenir.”

Brett Ryback and Joy Hermalyn as Florence Foster Jenkins and her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, in the Peterborough Players’ performance of “Souvenir.” STAFF PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI—

Brett Ryback and Joy Hermalyn as Florence Foster Jenkins and her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, in the Peterborough Players’ performance of “Souvenir.”

Brett Ryback and Joy Hermalyn as Florence Foster Jenkins and her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, in the Peterborough Players’ performance of “Souvenir.” STAFF PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI—

By ASHLEY SAARI

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 06-26-2023 12:49 PM

I’m about to give a compliment.

Broadway alum Joy Hermalyn puts what must be some of her worst vocals on display for the Peterborough Players’ season-opening, “Souvenir” by Stephen Temperley, with notes enthusiastic but wildly askew, marching cheerfully off-tempo to the point it can be difficult to identify the original tunes.

Remember, I’m giving a compliment.

That’s because Hermalyn is playing Florence Foster Jenkins, a real-life New York socialite and singer who forged an operatic music career marked by her infamously bad ear.

The two-person play is a character-driven comedy and drama, and the Players’ stage emphasizes that. A set nearly empty of props, only populated by a piano, a gramophone and a chair or couch, the entire focus of the play is centered on the relationship between Hermalyn as Jenkins and her accompanist and the play’s narrator, the long-suffering Cosme McMoon, played by Brett Ryback.

Jenkins appears utterly oblivious to her lack of skill, as she moves from playing ballroom shows for her social circle to recording “The Queen of the Night” for the public – the recording is the titular “souvenir,” for Jenkins to look back on when her voice begins to decline with age – and to an invitation to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Ryback narrates the play from the perspective of an older McMoon, ruminating on his 12-year career accompanying Jenkins, as she rushes headlong into an operatic career she is enthusiastically and obliviously ill-suited for.

The play’s first half is raucously funny. If you know nothing of the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the surprise of her first performance will surprise a laugh out of you, and as she barrels forward, you find yourself wondering, along with the similarly stunned McMoon, if it’s possible to really be that bad and not know – which, presumably, was part of Jenkins’ original audience appeal.

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You can’t help but laugh, but, like McMoon, the audience also can’t help but begin to root for Jenkins, at least a little. Everyone who’s ever had a dream probably wishes they had a dash of Jenkins’ courage (or perhaps delusion, or dementia, as McMoon considers).

Ryback gives a credible performance on the piano, with occasional lyrical interludes, but his acting performance is a gem. As Jenkins’ accompanist, his body language and facial expressions have to do some heavy lifting as he tries to gently steer her away from utter humiliation at the hands of her “adoring” public.

Similarly, Hermalyn’s performance as Jenkins hits the perfect tone with vocal performances that are hysterical rather than irritating, paired with Jenkins’ bubbly personality and contagious enthusiasm. She’s a delight to watch.

Ryback carries the audience along his own emotional journey, from pained listener to thoroughly endeared protector.

With a less-accomplished cast, this tale could tip into irritating. With the competence of Ryback and Hermalyn, the Players turn out a performance fitting to open their stage for the season, with a performance that hits all the right notes – along with the intentionally sour ones – for a heartwarming debut that manages to strike the balance between hilarious and deeply touching. A story about relationships, about chasing your dreams and accepting realities, “Souvenir” is sure to be a season favorite for me.

“Souvenir” is scheduled to run through July 2 on the Players’ main stage. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. weekdays and 4 p.m. on weekends. Tickets are $52 and are available online at peterboroughplayers.org or by calling the box office.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 603-924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.