BWW Review: SOUVENIR, A FANTASIA ON THE LIFE OF FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS at Walnut Street Theatre
Florence Foster Jenkins' life was a once in a lifetime phenomenon. Meryl played the part in the movie with Simon Helberg (better known as Howard in THE BIG BANG THEORY) portraying her accompanist Cosme McMoon.
The Walnut Theatre's Independence Studio stages the live two-person production SOUVENIR, A FANTASIA ON THE LIFE OF Florence Foster JENKINS in its intimate Independence Studio 3.
Entering with a bit of trepidation, one considers if this is to be an evening of auditory assault in the first degree. The movie version featured Miss Streep transferring her Julia Child speaking voice from JULIE & JULIA to a higher level of discordant notes. What transpired on stage resulted in a warm, funny and entertaining evening with two very talented actor/singers. The script by Stephen Temperley provokes discussion on conventions of 'good music' and 'pre-conceived judgments'.
SOUVENIR is the true story of the legendary New York heiress and socialite who obsessively pursued her dream of becoming a great singer. The voice she heard in her head was beautiful, but to everyone else (including Cosme) it was hilariously awful. (A program note suggests that Jenkins had syphilis. A side effect of the disease is tinnitus, a chronic ringing of the ear. Many believe the diva was incapable of hearing her own egregious vocal failings).
Rebecca Robbins is Florence. A true test of an actor/singer's skill is to play a character so very antithetical to all the years of dedication to become a wonderful singer, which in real life she is. It takes discipline not to throw in a true note once in a while.
Yet it becomes astonishing clear how adept Robbins is in singing badly. The squawks that she emits when straining for high notes sound as if she were a goose trying to pass a kidney stone after inhaling helium. With Robbins' great charisma and nuance we soon become endeared to this fusty dowager despite her full-throated onslaught on tone and pitch. Robbins resembles Lucille Ball and exhibits similar comic chops. When Jenkins plays a recording of her singing, Robbins' brings the house down as she gleefully lip synchs. She reminded me of Lucy drinking vitameatavegamin.
Jonas Cohen is McMoon, the long, long, long-suffering pianist and coach. Charm is a wonderful characteristic and Cohan has it in abundance. He sings, he deftly plays the Grand and he embraces the audience when he breaks the fourth wall in the opening scenes.
Director Debi Marcucci uses great insight in the scenes of conflict. When Cosme calls Florence 'a silly person', there is awkward silence between the two, creating palpable tension with an audience accustomed to laughing. A wonderful moment. Lighting Designer Troy A. Martin-O'Shia uses specials to great effect as Cosme goes first person with the audience.
Costumes by Amanda Wolff were gorgeous and so very '30's-'40's glam. When the real Florence played Carnegie Hall (at age 76!), she changed after every number. Wolff had her hands full with that scene, creating flowery tents and ornate senorita fashions, among others. The costumes not only sparkled but brought howls of laughter. (One wonders how many dressers Robbins had back stage. The quick changes were a feat unto itself).
Through Oct 15. WalnutStreetTheatre.org 215.574.3550
Next Up on Mainstage ANNIE Nov 7
Next Up Independence Studio On 3 IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Oct 31