Florence Foster Jenkins was fond of saying, "People may say I can't sing, but they can't say I didn't sing." If you attend Souvenir, the final production in Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati's 2006-07 season, you'll see — and hear — the truth of her remark.
Stephen Temperley's play is subtitled "A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins," which suggests a bit of embroidery on the true story of a woman who achieved considerable onstage notoriety despite an almost total absence of musical talent.
But I've done some research about Jenkins and heard a few scratchy recordings from the 1930s and 1940s, and I can assure you that actress Neva Rae Powers has captured the essence of her stage presence. A self-assured woman, she began singing publicly at the age of 60 despite being apparently tone-deaf and totally lacking any sense of rhythm or tempo.
Her recitals, which culminated in a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall in 1944 a month before her death, were covered widely by the media, and she made several recordings that can still be located on YouTube.
While Souvenir is mostly a comedy, it doesn't ridicule Jenkins, although another writer might have dwelt less on the repetition of her eccentricities. There's almost too much of a bad thing here; the script, which employs two acts, could be reduced to a more energetic 80 minutes without intermission.
Jenkins' story is reflected through the lens of her longtime accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Scot Woolley), recalling his career with her some 20 years after her death. While his initial encounters with her shrieking and squawking left him almost speechless, he was eventually won over by her indomitable confidence and positive demeanor.
In fact, Souvenir is as much about McMoon's ability to look beyond Jenkins' foolishness and appreciate her total devotion to music despite her singular inability to perform it. Most of the show recreates Jenkins' strange stage presence, wearing costumes of her own invention and manufacture and performing with choreography so odd and unexpected that it provokes gales of laughter, even from the most sober audiences.
Listen to her warble through the "Queen of the Night" aria from The Magic Flute or Adele's "Laughing Song" from Strauss's Die Fledermaus, and you'll understand why people reportedly stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths to keep from laughing out loud.
Powers brings Jenkins' painful performances back to vivid, audible life. It's hard to watch her arhythmic shifting of a rose and a maraca back and forth from hand to hand and not laugh (and perhaps marvel at how a good singer, which Powers is, can perform in this tortured way for extended intervals). Powers is also a sensitive actress who helps us get beyond her character's absurd behavior and offers a few glimpses into what motivated her.
Director Michael Evan Haney and costumer Reba Senske give Powers plenty to work with, especially when it comes time to re-create her Carnegie Hall concert, for which she has a new costume with each musical number, including Frank Loesser's "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," wearing a satin soldier's uniform and shouldering a rifle.
Woolley, who has frequently appeared on Cincinnati stages as a pianist and music director, proves he knows a bit about acting, too. His admirable accompaniment, often trying to bring the singer back from an off-kilter pitch, is perfect. But even more, we sense McMoon's growing affection for this odd woman, and it makes us see her in a different light.
The question he keeps asking — "What was she hearing? What was going on in her head?" — is eventually answered with the play's poignant conclusion. Grade: B+
SOUVENIR, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through May 13.