Souvenir:A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, by Stephen Temperley. Directed by Flo Hayle. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"It would be impossible not to protect her."
Alison Davy; photo: John Sowle
At the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, New York three people have taken center stage, each in a different way. Florence Foster Jenkins, the almost imperturbable diva of the 1930s and 1940s hates to give center to anyone else and, as portrayed in the Florence Hayle directed version of her story, she and her accompanist Cosme McMoon vie for that position like prizefighters in the match of their lives. It is a fight to the death and what happens here is a no-fail situation as both characters and their director never leave that position and they survive together for eternity.
This play had its true premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival about a dozen years ago. It has, since, played on Broadway and all across the country. Madame Jenkins was the subject of a Meryl Streep film this past year, garnering for its star another Oscar nomination. The character is a can't miss falling star who threatens to leave a crater in her wake, and in this production she truly makes her mark. Alison Davy, who plays Jenkins, is a dynamo with the most wonderfully weird performance manner and sound. She is unstoppable. She is laughably brilliant. Her most solemn, human moments touch you to the depths of your humorous soul and you find yourself sympathizing with your laughter time and again.
This classically trained singer/actress makes all the right choices in her vocal delivery. It is important that you read her program bio to understand that the woman has the chops to deliver on every single musical number she performs in this play, but know before you go that the play won't let her do that. It is said, over and over, that in her head Jenkins hears the music in her own voice as perfectly performed, ideally delivered. What comes out of her mouth, however. is the last thing you would expect: bad notes, disregarded melodies, quirky rhythms. Davy wonderfully performs every song with nuanced mania and bell-toned dystopia. I loved every minute of her performance.
Musician Jay Kerr plays musician Cosme McMoon. McMoon is that impotent victim of the rich lady who sings, the accompanist who cannot find his way out of the room and so remains there for thirteen years trying to either find the door or build a new one. Kerr as McMoon reminiscing about his diva twenty years later, is lovely with just the right sense of the sardonic as he tells his story, for this is his story as much as it is hers. He plays piano with a carefree touch, sings popular songs and classical arias with equal grace. He lets us enjoy McMoon's fate while showing us how a man can be roped and tied and harnassed against his will while still glorying in his unasked for fate.
As the center of the story, when he is allowed to be the center, Kerr delivers nicely on every point. When it is time to give Florence Foster Jenkins her moments, especially in Act Two, he is the perfect foil, the ideal accompanist, narrating through the costume changes, changing the mood for each number to come. An excellent accompanist himself, Kerr brings an even balance to the professional and personal relationships of his character to hers.
One major difference here from the afore-mentioned film (not drawn from this play) is that Kerr's McMoon never really disparages his lady-friend. Here he plays a man incidentally smitten with something he can never personally achieve, a social level of existence that she holds like a carrot on a string in front of a crippled rabbit, an offering never quite consumed. Kerr plays his rabbit with an eagerness that falls into a love-match never to be consummated.
Jay Kerr; photo: John Sowle
Jay Kerr and Alison Davy; photo: John Sowle
Act Two gives this duo their Carnegie Hall triumph. Here they share the limelight. Here they both give us the exacting and exhausting experience of a lifetime. Here Flo Hayle, the director, shines through the middle. She, too, has known that center-stage existence and as she moves her two players in and out of their self-absorbed performances the three merge into a single unit of lyrical appearance. My only qualm about the entire production lives in this part of the play when the costumes given to Madame Jenkins are just not the quirky curios that I anticipated. Outside of that, Hayle's vision is a choice one, a grand one. She has delivered her charges, Flo and Cosme, pretty well wrapped in pretty parchment and a grand old satin bow.
John Sowle's sets and lights are nicely presented. Kaitlyn Day's costumes are treasures but don't go far enough; also since the play moves from the late 1920s through the mid 1940s it would have been nice to see hemlines rise, fall and rise again to help guide us through time. Carmen Borgia's sound design works very well, but a bit more volume on the record player would have helped. Kudos to the dressers for their quick delivery of Jenkins' concert moments as well.
Temperley's play has a warm spot in my heart. It is modestly flawed but so very playable and with the right director and cast, such as we have in this production, it sparkles with humor, touches the warm places and is so very enjoyable. This is a nice way to make the move from winter into spring as it reminds us that no one with power is above a little laughter at his or her expense. Especially if they have the money to keep them above it somehow.
Souvenir plays at the Bridge Street Theatre, 44 W. Bridge Street, Catskill, NY through March 26. For information and tickets call 518-943-3818 or go on line at BridgeStreetTheatre.org.
This is a co-production with Fort Salem Theater in Salem, NY and the show will be on their stage July 14-16. To contact them call 518-854-9200 or go to fortsalemtheater.com.