Rep Stage presents a strong introduction to their 2019/2020 season with a charming production of Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir, directed by Joseph W. Ritsch. This play details the meteoric rise of Florence Foster Jenkins—an aging socialite whose earnest delivery of songs in which she couldn’t string two notes together earned her attention in the New York scene in the 1930s and 40s. Narrated by her faithful and long-suffering accompanist Cosme McMoon, the narrative follows the pair from Florence’s debut at the Ritz Carlton ballroom to her final sold-out show at a much larger venue.
Alan Naylor, as Cosme McMoon, acts as a sort of guide to her life. He externalizes the questions that the audience has: Does Florence know she is a bad singer? Is her persistence due to mental instability, or is she just resilient? Naylor himself has a wonderful voice and this stands in stark contrast to Grace Bauer’s performance as Florence. The relationship between these two characters takes on a sort of push and pull, with Cosme both hesitant to be linked publicly to Florence while also genuinely wanting to protect her from the reality that the audiences are laughing at her.
Bauer is quite skilled in her comedic timing. A large part of playing Florence Foster Jenkins is pretending to be a bad singer, which she does with admirable zest. The audience gets swept up in her heartfelt portrayal of this character, both laughing at and feeling sorry for Florence as she continues to climb the ladder of fame. You can’t help but feel respect for a woman whose desire to be heard outstrips any reservations. Naylor’s Cosme is himself swept up in the force of her self-confidence, despite some earlier hesitations. The interplay of internally-held beliefs and external realities makes this production a unique sort of comedy in which the line between moments of hilarity and sorrow is paper thin.
Major kudos is due to Costume Designer Julie A. Potter. Potter’s perfect costuming choices accurately transport us to the 1930s and 40s in a way that stands out more than in your typical production. There is one scene in particular where Florence changes costumes for each song in her set. Potter remains period-appropriate while adding to the comedic value of these numbers with flash.
The set, designed by Mollie Singer, is sparse but manages to give the audience the feeling of being in a cavernous rehearsal room as well as a full concert hall. The focal point of the set is the piano, around which the drama takes place. Lighting Designer Adam Mendelson also deserves a special mention, as the shifts in time periods rotate around various types of lighting cues. These were quite good for conveying the moods each scene evoked, with the stage getting brighter during lighthearted scenes and darker during scenes where emotional depths were being explored.
Rep Stage’s Souvenir is a testament to an eccentric woman whose real life was often the butt of jokes. While Grace Bauer’s performance as Florence Foster Jenkins is hilarious and garners much laughter from the audience, you can’t help but get emotionally invested in her success as a singer. Superb acting and comedic pathos come together in Rep Stage’s Souvenir to create a show which is not to be missed about a figure whose amusing and unique gifts won’t be soon forgotten.
Running Time: 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission
Souvenir plays through September 22, 2019, at Rep Stage performing at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center’s Studio Theatre at 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, MD. Tickets can be purchased online.