Judy Kaye in Souvenir(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Judy Kaye in Souvenir
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
To be honest, we'd never heard of Florence Foster Jenkins, a once-famous society dame whose reputation rested on singing wildly off-pitch. We're of the generation that remembers Mrs. Miller, who had a brief comic career in the 1960s as an outlandishly terrible vocalist. Jenkins' career lasted much longer (30 years), probably because television was not around to rush the public on to the next new novelty. In fact, Jenkins performed in front of a sell-out crowd at Carnegie Hall in 1944, a month before she died of a heart attack at the age of 76.

In the York Theatre Company production of Stephen Temperley's funny yet deeply moving new two-hander Souvenir, Jenkins' folly comes to life in Judy Kaye's exquisitely restrained performance. She offers a stunning mixture of comic flair and emotional delicacy that adds up to one of this season's first great performances. In the show, Kaye does one of the most difficult things that a truly talented vocalist can attempt: she sings badly. Even more impressive, under Vivian Matalon's delicate direction, she plays Jenkins as blissfully unaware of the fact that she doesn't have a speck of talent. It's an elegant conceit because, instead of a one-joke, camp biography, the play becomes a universal, very human story about how we imagine ourselves versus how people really see (or hear) us.

Kaye's partner in Souvenir is Jack F. Lee as Cosme McMoon, Jenkins' accompanist. We learn about Jenkins through him, and the tale is deepened by the fact that McMoon's own efforts as a songwriter have failed. Indeed, the play hits a high note when he begins to wonder if he's no different than Jenkins, fooling himself into believing that he has talent. Lee is a sincere actor but not a very good one; his performance is the only element of this otherwise winsome and winning show that could use improvement.

Souvenir is billed as a play with music. Most of the music is sung unabashedly badly. It may say something about the current season but, so far, this is one of the best musicals of the year.

********************

Brooke Shields and Jennifer Hope Willsin Wonderful Town(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Brooke Shields and Jennifer Hope Wills
in Wonderful Town
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Conversation Piece

Having heard so much about Brooke Shields' performance in Wonderful Town, we simply had to go back and see for ourselves if Donna Murphy's high profile replacement is up to snuff. We came away with considerable respect for Shields, who does a solid, respectable turn as Ruth Sherwood. She's no Donna Murphy, but who is?

As long as you're not comparing her to one of our great musical theater stars, you'll have to say that this "Pretty Baby" does a pretty good job. As beautiful as she is, it's hard to accept her as the story's ugly duckling older sister -- but the production is fortunate to have the stunning Jennifer Hope Wills in the role of her kid sister, Eileen. Wills is not only a gorgeous blonde, she's also a seductively natural actress, and her bright soprano buoys Shields in their duets. With its mix of new and original cast members, Wonderful Town continues to be, well, wonderful.

********************

Baby Jane Dexter
Baby Jane Dexter
Nightlife Notes

After a rather slow start, The Hideaway Room at Helen's is just now emerging as an important cabaret room with consistently top-flight acts. Look at their schedule now and it becomes readily apparent that this newish room in Chelsea -- located on the former site of Judy's -- is attracting the sort of performers that make a club a destination point. Consider just two examples:

Baby Jane Dexter's impressive new show, Bread & Gravy, recently opened at The Hideaway Room. Significantly different from Dexter's past endeavors, this act is more mellow (for her), including such ballads as "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (the Gershwins), "How Can I Be Sure" (Cavaliere/Brigati), and "I Concentrate on You" (Cole Porter). Despite her throaty R&B reputation, Dexter can also be a sensitive singer with an unsuspected delicate touch when she wants to go there. She's aided by musical director/pianist Ross Patterson's arrangements of songs that run the gamut from from Rodgers & Hart's "He Was Too Good To Me" to Patsy Moore's "Goodbye."

She doesn't shake the room like she used to; but if you're an old fan of Baby Jane's, you'll still get that tempestuous boom in songs like the show's title tune, "Bread and Gravy" (Hoagy Carmichael) and one of her signature songs, "Everybody Hurts" (Barry/Buck/Mills/Stipe). Baby Jane Dexter is playing The Hideaway Room on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 9:15pm.

Jason Graae
Jason Graae
Jason Graae doesn't often bring his act into New York, but those in the know always make a beeline to see him whenever he does. His new show, Coup de Graae!, is a breathtaking tour de force. A musical comedy clown with personality to spare (his energy puts Indian Point to shame), Graae kills in numbers like "The Moment Has Passed" (Al Carmines/Maria Irene Fornes) and a brilliant parody version of "My Funny Valentine" (Rodgers & Hart, with new lyrics by Jack Wrangler and Graae).

A natural entertainer, Graae constantly surprises you with his audacious sense of humor. His patter is non-stop funny, delivered in a heightened conversational style; his uptempo tunes swing and slay, while his ballads deliver the emotional goods. Graae is that rare musical comedy performer who also has a beautiful voice. Simply put, there is no one else like him. His show continues at The Hideaway Room at Helen's through December 18, playing every evening at 7pm except Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

********************

[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]