Theater Spotlight: Souvenir

Claudia Wilkens as Florence Foster Jenkins
Michal Daniel

Florence Foster Jenkins did not allow trifling details, such as her utter lack of talent, to derail her singing career. Incapable of carrying a tune, she used her wealth to bankroll her own recitals, which quickly gathered legendary status and were hot tickets among the New York hoity toity of the 1930s and '40s. Jenkins's story in Souvenir is narrated by her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Peter Vitale), looking back on events two decades in the past from his perch at a New York piano bar. Writer Stephen Temperley's narrative innovation pretty much stops here, and Jenkins's story plays out with connect-the-dots predictability. When young Cosmé and Florence (Claudia Wilkens) first meet, Cosmé cringes and writhes the first time he hears his new patron's pipes. Wilkens starts off over the top and doesn't back down for the entire two hours-plus, launching into all sorts of melodic criminality, punctuating her performances with gestures and expressions that push what is supposed to be bad performing into the realm of entertaining travesty. Vitale's role requires him to play classical and jazz piano, sing, act, and deliver monologues to the audience, and he keeps all these balls in the air. The problem is that neither Vitale nor Wilkens has much to work with in digging into their characters. Wilkens is enthusiastically snooty and self-possessed, but we get only the barest hint of what doubt might have lurked beneath Florence's sanguine exterior. Vitale's Cosmé does raise the questions we'd like answered (Was Florence as crazy as she seemed? Did she not have ears, for God's sake? Or, on some level, was she in on the joke?), but ultimately we get a shrug and a headshake in lieu of anything pertinent. It's a shame: Florence's story suggests all sorts of twisty byways involving privilege and art, self-perception, and public image. Instead we have an undeniably polished, frothy entertainment that offers up fun and pleasing (and intentionally displeasing) moments, while leaving the waters of truth placid and untroubled.

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