Vagabond Players stages 'Souvenir,' story of incomparable Florence Foster Jenkins
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 ...
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.
PHOTO BY KEN STANEK