Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and perhaps the same can be said of how beauty is heard. In this case the ear of the beholder belongs to a charming tone-deaf diva who believes she has been blessed with perfect pitch. The Vagabond Players closes its 96th season with the poignant comedy Souvenir: A Fantasia On The Life of Florence Foster-Jenkins. Directed by Roy Hammond, this touching and wickedly funny little tribute to Florence Foster-Jenkins kept the audience laughing while inspiring them with the notions of deep friendship and true passion. Cosme McMoon narrates the story of how he became the accompanist and deeply involved best friend of the eccentric woman who believed she was god’s gift to music. A touching and heart-warming comedy and perfect way to close the season is found in this polished little gem of a production.
One of the more fantastical aspects of this show is the incredible series of costume changes that Florence’s character undertakes. Costume Designer Ann Mainolfi creates breathtakingly elegant ensembles for her with touches of quirky eccentricity to complete the look. Mainolfi gives each of the outfits a touch of class while keeping them gloriously odd. From the shiny satin mauve dress to the black fluted glitter gown with gaudy jewelry to accessorize Mainolfi keeps this high-society aristocrat looking polished.
The real magic of these stellar costumes comes from Sherrionne Brown’s ability to accomplish flawless 30-second costume changes. In Act II Brown rolls through over seven different elegant and elaborate outfits for her recital at Carnegie hall and each change is executed to perfection in 30 seconds or less while her co-star speaks quickly on-stage about the next number she is meant to perform. Mainolfi’s designs truly sparkle and shine here as Brown showcases a myriad of garish and kooky gowns ranging from the maroon number with huge red roses stapled across the dress like a sash, complete with enormous dripping ruby earrings to the floor-length long-sleeved glittering sequin gown that looks like Mainolfi stole pieces from the sets of Oz’s emerald city to make it. This incredible display of rapid-pace impeccably timed costume changes (each complete with large jewelry accents) really gives the audience something to enjoy during the second act.
Cosme McMoon (Scott D. Farquhar) serves as the narrator to the audience and as a Virgil character to Florence, guiding and protecting her along her journey to stardom. While Farquhar’s narration does seem a little flat and listless at times, he makes up for this with his vastly comical facial and physical reactions, which are priceless. When he is surprised with news from Florence, such as she’s going to play town hall, she’s going to record a record, or she’s going to play Carnegie Hall, and when fumbles politely through his vocal responses as to not alert her to his deeper feelings on the matter, his face says it all.
Farquhar plays a real baby grand piano on the stage throughout the production and his ability to play despite the horrendous off-key sounds coming from his co-star is astonishing. And while his voice is certainly not blessed with perfect pitch either, he attempts to make up for this with his soft and gentle emotions that he lets flow through his songs when he sings.
Florence Foster-Jenkins (Sherrionne Brown) is the epitome of a fallen star who thinks she’s still zooming along the milky way. Only in her case she was never up there to begin with. Brown tackles the difficult task of performing as a grossly off-pitch singer, making sounds that would make a dying cow sound like an aria of sheer purity. Her performance becomes even more impressive when you hear her sing her final rendition of “Ave Maria” at the end of the show; letting the audience hear how the character always heard herself sing.
Brown loses herself in this character, letting the eccentricity shine through like a bright comic beacon. She believes her characters delusions which makes them that much more laughable to the audience. Brown approaches Florence with a strong sense of confidence and an air of sophistication that gives this dramatic oddball a brilliant flare upon the stage. Brown executes purely painful moments of music that will make the audience buckle over in laughter while holding their ears and praying for mercy. And all of Brown’s subtle little gestures, like gargling with the wine, continuing to pick up the empty wine glass as if expecting it to magically have refilled, staring dreamily out to her audience; all of these subtle nuances build upon the character to make her extremely dynamic and an enjoyable presence throughout the performance.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
Souvenir: A Fantasia On The Life of Florence Foster-Jenkins plays through July 1, 2012 at Vagabond Players – 806 S. Broadway Street in Fells Point, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 563-9135, or purchase them online.