How is theatre superior to film or TV? What special magic is found in live performance? This question is superbly answered in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Temperley’s hilarious and oddly touching play at the Walnut Street Theatre.
Leading lady Rebecca Robbins is a trained opera singer, yet she is somehow able to recreate the bizarre “musicality” that catapulted the real Madame Flo to Carnegie Hall. She looks like a typical Park Avenue matron in the Margaret Dumont mode but when she sings… well, it resembles the sound a cat being run over by a car. Listening to her rendition of “The Laughing Song” from Die Fledermaus is like standing in a shower of needles. How can a wonderful singer like Ms. Robbins force herself to sing flat and sharp continually? Movie soundtracks can be altered, but this performance is “live.” You have to see/hear it to believe it.
The real Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was a wealthy society woman who thoroughly enjoyed singing for her rich friends at charity benefits. What she lacked in some of the basics, such as pitch, musicianship, or rhythm she made up for in feeling. And the poor woman had no idea how bad she was. As her accompanist continually asks, “What does she hear?”
Robbins plays Madame Flo as a woman of some taste and sensitivity who says a number of insightful things about music and composers, such as the fact that musical notation is really just a signpost to guide singers to true feeling. And if she wants to sing and people want to listen, what is so wrong with that? The real Florence Foster Jenkins made recordings, and they attest to the amazing accuracy and comic timing of Ms. Robbins’ performance.
The second half of this two-character play is Cosme McMoon, Madame Flo’s longtime accompanist, who at first is a serious minded, starving artist seeking a patron. He hopes this embarrassing society event will last six weeks. But the fat salary the self-financed Madame Flo pays him keeps him coming back for 12 years. Jonas Cohen, who proves to be a skilled comedian, a decent classical accompanist, and an appealing piano bar performer, plays him. His best moments are the painful physical reactions to Madame Flo’s absurdities, not only her singing but also discoveries that the newspapers will review them, or they will play Carnegie Hall. He is a master of the double and triple take. In addition to “What does she hear?” he continually asks himself, and the audience, “Why am I here?”
The heart of Temperley’s play, carefully outlined by director Debi Marcucci, is the relationship. Cosme starts out as a sarcastic youngster who is horrified by what he must do to pay the rent. But gradually, her absolute belief in herself softens Cosme as he comes to see that true artisty might not be what comes out in the performance, but what the artist hears in her head.
Roman Tatarowicz’ set is the perfectly elegant Ritz-Carlton music room. Troy A. Martin-O’Shea’s lighting is memorable for the candlelit glow for Florence and the sharp purples for Cosme’s rants. In her final concert, Madame Flo wore a different costume for each song. Courtesy of designer Amanda Wolff, we are able to see some of these period accurate but hilarious outfits. John Kolbinski’s sound design is thankfully light-fingered for the tiny, upstairs Independence Studio.
The Walnut audience responded pretty much like Ms. Foster Jenkins’ audiences of the 1940s. They laughed and somehow approved at the same time. That’s an amazing thing to achieve.
Running time: Two hours, with an intermission.
Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins plays through Sunday, October 15. 2017 at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3 – 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 574-3550, or purchase them online.