Studio Theatre’s local premiere of Souvenir is a thorough delight, a finely crafted play that is perfectly showcased and wonderfully performed. Studio has brought local theatre-goers a two-character, master-class gem.
Lovable raconteur Cosme McMoon (J. Fred Shiffman) spins an affectionately humorous and warm-hearted reminiscence of his dozen years in the orbit of his late patron, Florence Foster Jenkins (Nancy Robinette), grand dame of early 20th Century New York high society, and concert soprano ad absurdum .
There is a song from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella that begins:
The Sweetest Sounds, I’ll ever hear
Are still inside my head …
This appears to be the Foster Jenkins’ manifesto. Regardless of what came out of her mouth, regardless of what was captured on vinyl, she heard bliss inside her head while her audiences heard cacophony. In less skilled hands, the show would degenerate into an old vaudeville joke: He wanted to tell her she sang like a clucking chicken, but he needed the eggs. Yuck, yuck. Not so here. This show is imbued with humanity and compassion. Howlingly funny at time, yes, but never cruelly so.
Cosme McMoon (J. Fred Shiffman) was a sometime composer, rehearsal pianist, and concert musician. McMoon’s legacy, judging solely from the Library of Congress online catalog, includes two compositions, “Like a Bird” and “Serenata Mexicana,” and accompanist credit for the few cataloged recordings now in archival recordings of his benefactor, Florence Foster Jenkins. Shiffman breathes life into this character with wit, wisdom, and self-deprecating charm. The period songs he plays and sings provide the perfect transitions between scenes and help to establish his relationship with Foster Jenkins. In tandem with his piano playing, Shiffman’s performance shifts seamlessly between his roles as participant and observer/commentator.
Robinette is the perfect Donna Quixote to Shiffman’s Sancho Panza. Madam Flo marches on, tilting at treble clefs, while Cosme strives to shield her from public ridicule. As with Quixote, for all her folly, Foster Jenkins is the heroine of the play. We intentionally are not given the full historical “back story” of either character (don’t go there, it’s tiresome by comparison to this inspired rendition), just suggestions of motivation.. She wanted a career as a classical singer and she chose to put her money where her passion was despite familial barriers. But she crafted her quest for artistic self-fulfillment in such a way that her performances would benefit her favorite charities. You would not know it from the show, but Foster Jenkins’ performances actually spanned over three decades beginning when she was 44 years of age and extending to her 1944 Carnegie Hall debut, her last performance, at age 76.
Here Foster Jenkins is a font of aphorisms about self-realization and self-determination Robinette captures all the shades of the character: humanity, eccentricity, fragility, and desire/dedication as well as the occasions of bruised and wounded ego.
This character-driven two-hander has an elegant set (designed by Luciana Stecconi) which doubles as music/rehearsal room and concert hall. The lighting (John Burkland) complements the simplicity of the set and smoothes the transitions, especially McMoon’s stop-action asides. Foster Jenkins was notorious for the number and extravagance of her costumes. Reggie Ray dresses the dowager diva at home and on stage to stunning effect. Her street clothes, so to speak, are gorgeous, conveying just the right sense of wealth and taste. Ray has a field day with the stage costumes. The angel ensemble from the Carnegie Hall performance is a signature outfit, but I particularly enjoyed the Spanish costume for the “Serenata Mexicana” performance (McMoon’s anticipatory anxiety makes her entrance all the more amusing). In particular, the costumes always reinforce the earnestness of the character; even when they are outrageous, they are never broadly, garishly, vulgarly comic. A very fine line to draw, indeed.
This is one of the most charming shows to play the DC area in some time. Pity that Studio didn’t have the production certified for continuing education unit (CEU) credits because Shiffman and Robinette deliver CEU-worthy performances. True, the main story is a bit thin, but it’s hardly “one note.” Apparently, you would have to round up a sizeable posse to help Foster Jenkins find the same note twice.
Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
By Stephen Temperley
Produced by Studio Theatre
Directed by Serge Seiden
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
(Running time: Just under two hours with one 15 minute intermission) Souvenir continues in Studio’s Milton Theatre until July 1. 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. Performances are Wednesdays thru Sundays. Evenings: 7:30, Matinees: 2:30 pm. Tickets: $39 – $55. Call the box office 202 332-3300 or order online.