Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins by Stephen Temperley. Directed by Tim Fort.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"It’s something to be proud of, wasn’t it?"
Genuine talent is not always of the obvious kind. Florence Foster Jenkins began her singing career in 1912 and sang her final concert, her only one at Carnegie Hall in New York City, in 1944, a 32-year-long career which is exceptional for a classical singer. The fact that she was tone-deaf, rhythm-challenged, language-stultified and generally non-musical made no difference to her or to her fans. She always sold out her performances, most of which were for charities that needed her help.
Her true talent, it would seem from this delicious play, was in believing wholeheartedly in her ability to provide quality entertainment when it was required; she passed this strength of purpose in belief along to her accompanist. She never heard the laughter that surrounded her performances as derisive, merely as joyful. According to the play she honestly felt that her singing was uplifting people’s spirits, was providing them with finest coloratura available at the time, was educating and enthralling them at the same time. Her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, did not agree we are told but he stayed with her from the mid-1920s until her death in 1944 so some of her belief system vigor must have infiltrated his heart and his brain.
In Stephen Temperley’s play, Souvenir - now on stage at the Weston Playhouse’s second stage - the subject may be roses and their giver Ms. Jenkins, but the play belongs to Cosme at the piano. This was clear to me when I saw the premiere of the show at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 2005 and it is even clearer to me now after seeing this show again. He tells the story but it isn’t her story. We never learn much about her before he meets her and we never learn anything about her life during the years they work together. She is the principal of a story untold. We do learn about him and his responses to life and work and the unpleasant reality that she is the level at which he will always be perceived and remembered.
Luckily in this production Cosme is played by a very handsome and talented man and as such we truly feel his pain each time he has to attempt to correct the uncorrectable. Jonas Cohen plays the piano well, sings nicely and acts with a reality-based technique that is sometimes nearly stultifying. His honesty is overwhelming. His charm is slightly forced. His transition from sceptic and scoffer to heroic champion is wonderful to watch. The remorse he exhibits in the telling of his story about a love/hate relationship with Jenkins is tear-jerking. I think I would pay to watch him nightly in this play. He’s that good.
His Florence Foster Jenkins, Madame Flo, is a remarkably talented woman named Georga Osborne. She has a wonderfully expressive face reminiscent of Edna May Oliver and her hands flutter like Margaret Dumont’s hands. Her body appears to be a dead-ringer for that of Mrs. Jenkins and her vocal production in the arias and lieder is just about as unbearable as that of her role-model. "I am known for my ear!" she says at one point and we have to ask ourselves exactly what does that mean. Certainly it can’t refer to her musical ear and its uncanny understanding of placement. Perhaps it just means her shell-like ear. Either way it is one of those very funny lines in its moment and in Osborne’s voice and like her singing makes little sense in the greater scheme of things.
Blair Mielnik has created a lovely set and Tracey Christensen some superb costumes, both elegant and outlandish as needed. Travis McHale does all right with his lighting and Jeff Human seems to have balanced sound nicely in this odd and elongated space in which the play is performed.
Tim Fort has wrung every conceivable laugh out of his actors and this script. He has also managed to bring us to tears near the end of the play, extracting from his actors and his audience an irrefutable response to the basic tenets of this play. His actors are using period physical gestures naturally. They are in their moment and that is a tribute to all three of them.
This is one of those plays that must be described as gems. Not flawless - for so much is left out of the story here - and yet hardly flawed at all, Souvenir in Weston, Vermont is just about the perfect piece of theatrical summertime fun. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
Jonas Cohen and George Osborne; photo: James Schriebl
Florence Foster Jenkins
The final Ave Maria; photo: James Schriebl
Souvenir plays at the Weston Rod & Gun Club, second stage for the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company, just 1.5 miles north of the Weston Playhouse on Route 100 in Vermont through July 31. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288.