In the age of Rebecca Black and William Hung, the idea that someone could be famous for their mediocrity is not exactly far-fetched. However, before YouTube and American Idol made catapulting yourself into fame for a complete lack of talent simple and cheap, one had to invest their personal resources to do so. Enter, Florence Foster Jenkins; A 1930’s socialite with a winning combination of independent wealth and blissful ignorance. Foster Jenkins’ self-funded career as a recitalist is chronicled in the memory play, Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins written by Stephen Temperley and directed by Jay Brock at 1st Stage.
Foster Jenkins’ story is told in retrospect by the primary accompanist of her career, Cosme McMoon. His memory jumps from their initial meeting, to their first recital through the establishment of a regular recital series at the Ritz-Carlton Ballroom. As McMoon, Keith MacDonald bounces back and fourth immaculately between the asides where he remembers Foster Jenkins to the audience and his flashback scenes with her. The chemistry between McDonald and Lee Mikeska Gardner as Florence Foster Jenkins is undeniably delightful. However there are times (primarily in the first act) where the two characters are so caught up in the stereotypes of the narcissistic opera diva and the snarky sidekick that the Florence McMoon described in his monologue is inconsistent with the Florence we eventually meet in the scenes. In fact, there is a time where McMoon expressly says that he doesn’t think that Foster Jenkins insists upon giving recitals out of vanity but out of an honest enthusiasm for sharing the music she hears in her mind.
Fortunately, this portrayal of Foster Jenkins is much more evident in the second act, which centers around her infamous performance at Carnegie Hall, brilliantly performed by Ms. Gardner. While the acting is high quality, the overall interpretation of Foster Jenkins’ story focuses so much on McMoon’s reaction to her, I found it, at times, difficult to break away from his judgement of her and develop much empathy for her character.
Florence Foster Jenkins’ famously questionable sartorial choices for the Carnegie Hall recital are recreated divinely by Yvette M. Ryan who also deserves a special shout-out for the sheer volume of dresses worn by Ms. Gardner over the course of the show. Ryan’s showier costumes are complimented by the simple set and lighting design, created by Mark Krikstan and Baron Pugh respectively. Vocal coaches Jane Margulies Kalbfeld and Rachelle L. Fleming also deserve a special shout-out for helping Ms. Gardner successfully recreate the distinctive tones of Ms. Foster Jenkins. When midway through the first act, an actual record of Florence Foster Jenkins is played, there is very little disparity between that and what we have already heard live from Ms. Gardner.
Souvenir’s finest points come when Gardner is able to drop the puffed up opera diva stereotype and create a more multidimensional version of Foster Jenkins. Souvenir is an entertaining journey through McMoon and Foster Jenkins’ relationship with plenty of laughs to be had along the way.
Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins plays through March 2, 2014 at at 1st Stage -1524 Spring Hill Road, in McLean, VA . For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.