You know its coming. You wait for it with nervous expectation. Your ears tingle in readiness as you listen to her reluctant music collaborator and friend, Cosme McMoon, sitting in a 1940s jazz club, reminiscing about his days playing for the fabled iconoclast performer Florence Jenkins. He softly tickles his baby grand as he brings us back in time. After all, Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins is a memory play. Set largely in a 1940s hotel drawing room, this 1st Stage Theatre production is an easy stroll into the sensibilities of a slightly off center dilettante, famous for being famous.
They first meet when he interviews for a job as her concert accompanist. And then it comes. The Sound. It is a “Bad” sound, but not as awful as expected… call it a calamitous cawing, like a crow deciding where next to step. Cosme’s facial expression is priceless and his astonishment and shock almost makes him leave, but with persistent pleas from Jenkins, he stays. After all, it was an easy gig and ‘he had to pay the rent.’
Jenkins was a wealthy socialite whose love of music led her to believe she was a talented operatic soprano, although she unfortunately lacked pitch, tone, and rhythm. You know, the basics. However, this did not stop her from giving concert recitals in the 30s and 40s at New York’s Ritz Carlton, and ultimately, Carnegie Hall.
“People used to say to me, ‘Why does she do it?’ ” says Cosme, (a witty and revelatory Brian Keith MacDonald) in a meandering opening monologue on his time with her. “I always thought the better question was, ‘Why did I?’ ” And it’s Cosme’s changing views on Mrs. Jenkins, (acclaimed regional talent Lee Mikeska Gardner), that gives the play its moments of breadth and depth.
… an easy stroll into the sensibilities of a slightly off center dilettante
Seeing her through the eyes and words of her accompanist, his perspective is key, and though they are polar opposites, their relationship deepens. In doing so, he played his gay predilection very offhandedly. (Artistic sexual tendencies whether north or south were handled with a knowing nod back then, not with legislation). Jenkins makes no mention of it, hinting at Cosme having other obligations or chances to see the world or write his own songs. In fact, Jenkins never talks about her personal life or anyone else, except the “mean people in the newspapers who come and say mean things about society people.’’
Early on, Cosme tries to help Jenkins on notes and timing. His slowly building impatience, as if working with a child, is fine sustained work. Jenkins simply says that there is nothing to adjust. Piano was off key.
As he later erupts and blurts out, “why can’t you hit this note you silly woman?” Jenkins is taken aback, hurt, and after a moment expresses how he could have called her silly. In a touching moment, Cosme gently apologizes and coaxes her out of her funk by playing a teasing jazz melody. Jenkins’ resolute nature and sweetness inspire a grudging admiration that solidifies their bond.
Gardner, as a theatre veteran, imbues the role with a strong yet dotty niceness–clearly an actress following her own inner muse. Her choice was more of a meandering down a lane of notes… than a song. Lets face it–its hard to convincingly do bad good. Gardner’s deluded self-confidence was the key to the success of the show.
Playwright Stephen Temperley has created in “Souvenir” an unexpectedly gentle and affecting comedy. Director Jay D. Brock added nice touches to the scenes that slowly build our understanding of the twosome’s relationship. Action naturally unfolds around the piano and downstage, in a dreamlike is-this-real feeling.
The last half hour is more of a challenge. The recreation of the last concert at Carnegie hall was at once hilarious and sad, as Gardner awkwardly walked offstage after an operatic piece, and then returns in another garish outfit with wild hand gestures to lovingly trounce another number. Arias such as “The Laughing Song” and most egregiously, Mozart’s “The Queen of the Night” were eviscerated. Bach’s “Ave Maria” was replete with angels’ wings and even laughter piped in for good measure. Here, where Jenkins first realizes that she was the punchline, Cosme is there for her.
Gardner made it work. She portrayed a realistic, humble grace through it all. As Cosme finally comes to understand, she is just ‘singing the music in her head.’
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes with a 15 minute intermission
Souvenir is presented at the 1st Stage Theatre in Tysons Corner, 1524 Spring Hill Rd, McLean, VA22102 from Feb. 7 to March. 2, 2013. For tickets call the information line at (703) 854-1856 or click here.