BWW Review: SOUVENIR Delights at Milwaukee Repertory Theater
It's said that lovers of good music had to stuff their handkerchiefs in their mouths to keep from bursting out laughing at the operatic recitals of eccentric Manhattan socialite, Florence Foster Jenkins. Madame Flo once declared, "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." She wasn't wrong - people did say she couldn't sing, but sing she did.
Florence Foster Jenkins started by entertaining at intimate salon parties in the 1920s and 30s, then went on to sing at sold-out recitals seating 200-or-so at the Ritz Carlton ballroom. It's a truly amazing feat, given what one New York Times reporter said of Madame Jenkins' instrument: "She can sing anything but notes."
Luckily for Milwaukee theatergoers, Marguerite Willbanks is now channeling Florence Foster Jenkins and singing anything but notes at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. The two-person show, Souvenir, runs through November 5th and is being held at the cozy Stackner Cabaret dinner theater - a capacity which, I imagine, might be on par with Madame Flo's early salon recitals.
The other half of the Souvenir duo is Jack Forbes Wilson, who plays our charismatic narrator and Jenkins' accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. While Willbanks slays the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, Forbes Wilson has also earned his standing ovation. His voice is clear and easy on the ears, and his breezy way of tickling the ivories rounds out his charm. I could listen to him play and sing 1920s jazz all night in that wonderful cabaret, where one gets lost in time and in the music.
Yes, the setting was indeed a treat, but the heart and humor with which Willbanks plays Madame Flo could easily swell to fill a much grander space - perhaps even Carnegie Hall, where Florence Foster Jenkins gave her most renowned recital in 1944. At said recital, the entire house sold out in two hours, and single tickets purchased at $2.40 were being scalped for $20 a pop. On the eve of the performance, 2,000 more people clamored for tickets at the box office.
But back to Willbanks and the performance that garnered bursts of laughter, steady streams of tears, and a hop-to-your-feet standing ovation. I haven't seen the Meryl Streep movie about Florence Foster Jenkins, but Mary Louise better watch out - Marguerite Willbanks is coming for her Oscar nom. Willbanks so perfectly captures Jenkins' blind, childlike self-assuredness, her subtle heart-wrenching doubts, and of course her astounding pitch-imperfect singing.
90% of Willbanks' singing is, indeed, off-key. You might wonder why anyone would pay to see tone-deaf musical theater, but we need only examine the phenomena that was the real Florence Foster Jenkins to find the answer. When audiences stuffed handkerchiefs into their mouths to keep from bursting, that's the sensation one gets at the Milwaukee Rep's Souvenir. Giddy and gleeful - rapt with sheer awe and amazement at Jenkins' unwavering courage and spirit.
How remarkable that this show gives us the chance to feel a glimmer of what Madame Flo's own audience must have felt. It's an uplifting, I-too-can-do-anything feeling, and one that sets the bar outrageously high for this season at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow