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Souvenir
Weird Magic

Adobe Theater


Lorri Oliver and Phillip J. Shortell
Here's an oddball of a play that offers more drama and entertainment than its premise suggests. Souvenir by Stephen Temperley, subtitled "A Fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins," follows the singing career of Florence Foster Jenkins (Lorri Oliver), a real-life New York character who made her name on her terrible voice. She apparently thought her singing was flawless, while in fact she was constantly off tune and off rhythm. She became a small sensation in the late '30s and early '40s, finally selling out a Carnegie Hall performance in 1944 at age 76, just two weeks before her death. Fans flocked to her concerts to see how unbelievably bad she was.

Our fascination with awful singing extended beyond Jenkins. In the '60s, it was Wild Man Fisher in L.A., Tiny Tim in the '70s, and Austin's Daniel Johnston in the '80s. The attraction is similar to—but not quite the same as— rubber necking an auto accident. Watching a horrible singer is an elevated form of gawking. Part of what makes it work is the very real charisma of an awful singer. Not just any bad singer will do.

Souvenir truly surprised me. I wasn't sure how this play would develop or could develop. The notion of a bad singer—so bad she draws hordes—seemed like it would be a quick joke. How on earth could you use this conceit to span 90 to 120 minutes? Even if you factor in the drama matching a talented-but-insecure accompanist with a blithering over-confident talentless singer, it's still hard to see how the joke can be sustained. Yet it worked very well.

The play focuses on Jenkins' relationship with her accompanist Cosme McMoon (Phillip J. Shortell) who worked with her during the last 12 years of her life, which spans her musical career. Oliver and Shortell have worked together in previous plays directed by Souvenir's director James Cady (Death of a Salesman and All My Sons). Yet to say they work together is not quite right in this show.

Jenkins is in a world of her own. Just as she cannot sufficiently break from her bubble to see her musical inadequacies, she also fails to break from her bubble to relate honestly with McMoon. He is ultimately a prop in her fantasy world. While it is clear that McMoon develops affection for Jenkins, they do not connect. Jenkins lives in a whirlwind all her own, and McMoon gives up trying to penetrate her bubble after a few sincere attempts. So, rather than relating to each other, the characters live out their time together adjacent to one another, yet dependent on each other.

In his direction, Cady leaves off one aspect of McMoon's real-life relationship with Jenkins—his public wink to the audience that he's in on the gag. Apparently in real life, McMoon used to make faces to the audience as Jenkins would veer wildly off course. The McMoon in Souvenir is too protective of Jenkins's feelings—even if her feelings are just vanity—to betray her to the audience.

Oliver, who trained in opera in Santa Fe, is extraordinary as Florence. Her excellent voice is a must for this performance just as Shortell's piano skills are a must for his role. Shortell gets to play well. Oliver has to sing poorly, and not just slightly poorly, but horribly. This must be quite the challenge for a trained singer. And a superb voice is required for the role in order the deliver the drama's high ending.

Shortell is wonderful as the put-upon musical sap who knows he's living a farce but needs the rich lady's patronage. In the end he realizes any success he will experience as a musician has come through his delusional employer. He surrenders to the delusion and ultimately finds himself on stage at a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert.

The strange secret to this play is that the audience gets a taste of the abominable disaster that was Florence Foster Jenkins. I noticed as I found myself in full laugh that it was probably the same humor the fueled the laughter at a Jenkins' performance 70 years ago. Even if it was just a pretend train wreck on stage, it was still irresistibly funny to behold.

The set by James Cady and Linda Wilson is very simple: a grand piano in Jenkins' hotel room, with a view of Manhattan's Chrysler Building out the window. The costumes by Oliver herself (assisted by seamstress Jennifer Ripper and dressers Sarah Seaton and Rosie Crum) are nearly a character of their own. The sound (very important in this production) is crisp—thanks Norm Fletcher. And the lighting design by Michael Girlamo works well to transform the narrative from McMoon's reminiscences to live flashbacks of rehearsals and performances.

What a fun evening. As can be expected, Cady delivers well—even down to the play's excellent poster. At the performance I attended, Souvenir well deserved its enthusiastic standing ovation.

Souvenir by Stephen Temperley is directed by James Cady at the Adobe Theater, 9813 Fourth St. NW, through March 15. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm, with a special "Pay What You Will" performance (to benefit the cast and crew) on Thursday March 5th at 7:30 pm. General admission is $17, with tickets for seniors, students, and ATG members is $15. For reservations, call 505-898-9222 or go to the Adobe Theater website at adobetheater.org.


Photo: Ossy Werner

--Rob Spiegel



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