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June 6, 2012

Vagabond Players stages 'Souvenir,' story of incomparable Florence Foster Jenkins

Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” being given an appealing production by the Vagabond Players, conjures up the real-life character — and I do mean character — Florence Foster Jenkins in all her audacity and peculiar charm.

This banker’s daughter from Wilkes-Barre became a famed New York socialite who fancied herself a soprano and, to the amazement of many, gave concerts for decades on behalf of her favored charities.

That Florence died at 76 one month after a blissful, music-mangling pinnacle — her standing-room-only Carnegie Hall recital in 1944 — only added to the myth. “Unique” is just too bland a word for her. 

“Souvenir” does not attempt to ...

gloss over the absurdity of this chapter in human folly, or to make anyone feel guilty for finding Florence awfully funny. But it’s an ultimately affectionate look at the woman and the faith she had in herself. As she memorably put it: “Some may say that I couldn't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing.”

A cruel play would be pointless. Florence was not a cruel woman. She tended, it seems, to see the best in everything. She even managed to deflect the guffaws she sometimes heard, mostly from newcomers (experienced fans knew to stick handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle the laughs), and concentrate instead on the smiles and cheers in the house.

Temperley gives us a disarmingly sure, but fragile, woman who contemplates singing “Lucia di Lammermoor” with a Scottish burr (what a delicious sonic image); questions “this modern mania for accuracy”; and manages to get an unsuspecting pianist, Cosme McMoon, to put aside qualms and collaborate with her.

A modest success in 2005 on Broadway, where it provided an ideal vehicle for the vibrant Judy Kaye (she reprised the role in a 2009 Center Stage production), “Souvenir” presents considerable challenges to any actress portraying Florence. To begin with, there’s the task of singing badly — not as easy as it may sound.

Sherrionne Brown handles the wobbly warbling with terrific aplomb for the Vagabonds, each errant note propelled with delicious abandon, each phrase given the full, impassioned treatment. She’s a nuanced actress, too, capable of making Florence seem not just disarmingly quirky (she uses a finger to extract the last drop of wine from a glass), but also quite touching.

In the second act of “Souvenir,” centered around the Carnegie concert, Brown does an impressive job tearing into number after over-the-top musical number. She’s even more impressive afterward, getting to the heart of the matter in Florence’s poignant plea, “I am not a silly woman.”

When the play requires Brown to sing properly (this scene is Temperley’s most inspired idea), she comes up a little short, but that’s a minor disappointment. What counts is that Brown summons the very quality that Florence treasured and assumed she had in spades — expressiveness.

The role of McMoon, who serves as guide though a series of flashbacks, is portrayed by Scott D. Farquhar. He’s an amiable presence, but his acting isn’t entirely persuasive. And his piano playing is not as smooth and stylish as it needs to be to make the contrast with Florence richly pronounced.

Director Roy Hammond keeps things flowing nicely. Tony Colavito’s set design summons just enough atmosphere, aided by Bob Dover’s lighting, and costume designer Ann Mainolfi has assembled a vivid parade of outfits for the sweetly deluded diva.

"Souvenir" runs through July 1.

PHOTO BY KEN STANEK

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:52 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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