“Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” by Stephen Temperley is being performed by Rep Stage at the Studio Theatre at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College. This production is directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, who is also the Producing Artistic Director of Rep Stage.
This is a two-actor show and follows the relationship of Florence Foster Jenkins (Grace Bauer), a socialite who held many concerts, spotlighting herself, and her accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Alan Naylor). For those of you who have not seen the movie with Meryl Streep, Jenkins was a phenomenon of the Depression and World War II era in New York City. Her vocal abilities were not just lacking, but awful. Yet, she filled her small, but regular, concert venues, usually at the ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, with her friends from high society as well as such notables as Cole Porter and Gian Carlo Menotti. McMoon was hired to be her pianist and vocal coach. However, she was unable to hear herself, and McMoon soon realized that if he wanted his regular and substantial paycheck to continue, he needed to not only tolerate Jenkin’s shrill intonations but keep protecting his benefactress from the ridicule he saw in her audience.
Unlike the movie, this story focuses on the relationship between the two performers. It is told from the viewpoint of McMoon whose many monologues to the audience tell us about their first meeting and the ups and downs of their relationship. Let me stress, however, this is predominately a comedic endeavor. Once Jenkins begins singing, you cannot help but laugh heartily. The character is similar to Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers’ movies or Betty White in “Golden Girls.” For the most part, there seems to be no self-awareness of their naivete and lack of ability. As long as we think Jenkins is oblivious to her flawed musical talents, we can laugh at her.
It is only when reality creeps into the picture that we wonder if it is unkind to laugh. In one scene Jenkins accuses McMoon of being less than perfect on the first record they have produced. (These really still exist, and are still used as retaliation for noisy neighbors.) McMoon can no longer hold his tongue and is very harsh to his employer. When he sees the pain he has caused, and the loss of income, he tries to clear the air by singing a popular song, “Crazy Rhythm” to her. The ending after Jenkins actually performs at Carnegie Hall with McMoon has a sobering effect as well.
‘Souvenir’ is a humorous and witty look at human frailty. The acting is top caliber. Come to one of the several performances left and be truly entertained.
However, this is a very funny play. Naylor as the witty and gay musician could not be better. He has many songs of his own that he sings (on key) and plays on the piano skillfully for the audience. Naylor uses these moments to help tell McMoon’s story by inflections, facial expressions and body language. Sometimes, these are big, like the moment he first hears Jenkins’ sing, and sometimes they are subtle as when he is playing at one of the many recitals they perform while he surveys the audience. Naylor’s singing and playing ability is top quality which only highlights Jenkins’ tin ear. Naylor has long pages of dialogue and is very often on stage by himself. He holds our attention and the words just flow so comfortably he never seems long-winded.
Bauer’s performance is in some ways more difficult to pull off. She has to sing not only off-key but off rhythm. She also has to sing in other languages, often mispronouncing the words to famous classical operatic pieces. Bauer never lets us know whether Jenkins has any insight to her flaws. She allows us to wonder if Jenkins is blind and deaf to the reactions of her others. This permits us to laugh at her when she lets loose vocally. She also has recreated the walk, accent and body movements of someone much older than the actress and that of an older socialite from that era.
Bauer and Naylor have wonderful chemistry, and we accept that this unlikely pair could develop a mutual respect and fondness for each other despite the difference in their age, social standing and musical talent.
Ritsch’s direction is never heavy-handed. He allows these two tremendously talented individuals to make these characters alive. With very little set, he still creates visually appealing tableaus for the critical scenes. He reflects the playwright’s vision that this is part reality, part fantasy.
Mollie Singer is the set designer. The set replicates the music room at the Ritz-Carlton. There are many interesting angles that keep it from looking static and focuses eyes on the piano and the solos from Jenkins.
The Costume Design by Julie A. Potter is creative and in period. Some of the best laughs are the recreation of Jenkins’ real costumes and others that reflect the imagination of the playwright. Jenkins’ costuming brought color to the stage. The wig designer, Lucile Wakeland, helps create the personalities of the two characters without seeming artificial.
William K. Eugenio’s Sound Design is strategic to this play. There is a great deal of music for a non-musical. Some of it is recorded, the musical albums the two protagonists made, and some are sound effects, the muffled laughs of Jenkins’ audience. D’Eugenio artfully makes this all seem very realistic. At one point I did not know if the sound I heard was electronically produced or a real audience reaction.
Adam Mendelson’s Lighting Design uses various color lights to let us know when we are in the present and when we are in the past. When McMoon talks to the audience remembering Jenkins, the lights are red and purple. When we go back to the past, the lights are predominately yellow. The first grouping of lights tends to make McMoon older, and the second set makes him seem closer to the characters real age. It is an interesting technique and usually successful. Sometimes, however, Naylor’s face will suddenly go from reddish to purplish as he crosses the stage which is distracting.
One needs to remember throughout that this is not a real biography of Jenkins. It is loosely based on her life and McMoon’s. Jenkins, in reality, had a long-time paramour who is not even mentioned in the comedy. She also suffered from syphilis which may have contributed to her not being able to hear herself or process the reactions of her audience. Again, there is no whisper of this. Temperley is clear that he is not trying to perfectly recreate her life. This is a sanitized version in a sense or as he puts it a “fantasia.”
“Souvenir” is a humorous and witty look at human frailty. The acting is top caliber. Come to one of the several performances left and be truly entertained.
Running Time: Two hours with an intermission.
“Souvenir” plays at Rep Stage through September 22, 2019, in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.