Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
Also see Susan's review of The Witches of Eastwick
Nancy Robinette is one of Washington's best and most honored actresses, the recipient of four Helen Hayes Awards for her insightful, sometimes hilarious performances. But what she does in Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, now at the Studio Theatre, takes her talent into a whole new realm: singing.
Well, sort of. Jenkins was a New York socialite notorious in the 1930s and 1940s for her confidence in her ability to sing the coloratura soprano repertoire – a confidence that was utterly unfounded. Her musical salons became legendary, and ultimately she performed to a sold-out house in Carnegie Hall, one month before her death in 1944. Recordings of the great lady are still available on CD, and Gil Thompson's sound design incorporates one actual Jenkins recording.
The underlying question is whether Jenkins knew the truth about her singing "talent," or was she like Margaret Dumont, unflappable around Groucho Marx because she never understood a word he said? Souvenir portrays her through the memories of her accompanist, Cosme McMoon (J. Fred Schiffman), and he comes to accept that she is incapable of hearing herself as others hear her. At first he's appalled by the quality of her singing, but he comes to admire her tenacity, her joy in performing, and even her belief that "nothing is so detrimental to modern music than our emphasis on accuracy."
While a singing actress might have done more with the musical interludes in Souvenir, it's impossible to imagine anyone doing a better job than Robinette in conveying the woman's serenity, the radiance of her face while singing, and the growing bond between herself and McMoon. When she hears a recording of her voice, she notes that something is amiss, but quickly realizes that the problem must be with the piano, or with the recording process. As McMoon says: "She was so absolutely, transparently sure of herself."
McMoon could have been played as merely a foil for the overwhelming "Madame Flo," but as portrayed by Schiffman and showcased by director Serge Seiden, he becomes her actual partner. In his prissy way, he comes to be her protector from the harsher judgments of the world. Schiffman creates his character through physical details: his prissy posture, the way he delicately bends one knee behind him, and his fumbling with his thick glasses.
Reggie Ray's costumes come into their own in the second act, when he recreates highlights of Jenkins' recital wardrobe. (Yes, she really did wear enormous angel wings when she performed Gounod's "Ave Maria.") Luciana Stecconi's scenic design turns the small Milton Theatre into an elegant salon, with chandeliers and flowing drapes washed with color from John Burkland's lighting design.