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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Heartfelt and Hilarious Souvenir
at ACT Theatre

Souvenir
Mark Anders and Patti Cohenour
There may never again be a celebrity as wildly untalented yet undoubtedly fascinating as would-be opera diva Florence Foster Jenkins, an heiress, who at age 60 in 1928 began making appearances at New York city's Ritz Carlton to small but fascinated audiences. Her career culminated with a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall shortly before her death in 1944. Mrs. Jenkins' life was a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale waiting to be told, and Stephen Temperley's play with music, Souvenir, tells it with equal doses of hilarity and heartbreak. ACT Theatre's production directed with flair by R. Hamilton Wright allows the sensational veteran Broadway actress/singer Patti Cohenour to stun us with her uncanny agility to sing very, very badly (think of a clucking chicken in distress) while earning gales of laughter and bales of sympathy all at once, and to share the stage with the wonderful actor/pianist Mark Anders as Mrs. Jenkins' long-suffering accompanist Cosmé McMoon.

Anders' McMoon narrates the tale of Mrs. Jenkins' unlikely rise to fame as she went through song after song, recital after recital, quite possibly clueless as to her complete lack of pitch and accuracy. Yet Temperley's play also shows us McMoon's transition from disbelieving hired hand to perpetual partner in crime. He realizes her success as a novelty is keeping him gainfully employed as his own career as a tunesmith never takes off, while in spite of himself he becomes Mrs. Jenkins' protector and guardian, from a public whose snickers and guffaws finally force her to hold up a cruel mirror and see that her delusions of talent are just that. Director Wright keeps the piece from becoming overly slapsticky or sentimentalized, and he could not have found a better pair of actors than Cohenour and Anders to interpret these people.

Cohenour, who began her Broadway career as a limpid soprano ingenue in such shows as Big River, Drood and as the first American actress to essay Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera, gets to show off a comic palette of colors that rivals such queens of slapstick as Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball. Her lengthy second act Carnegie Hall concert sequence, gowned perfectly by costume designer Marcia Dixcy Jory in one divinely over the top theatrical costume after another, has to be one of the most achingly humorous sequences I have seen on any stage in years (be ready to wipe the tears from your eyes from the laughter that comes watching and hearing her do "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition"). But then when the moment arrives when her caterwauling rendition of "Ave Maria" elicits huge guffaws, Cohenour is utterly heartbreaking, as this blindly confident woman realizes the apparent folly of her ill-chosen career.

McMoon outlived Mrs. Jenkins by many years, which helps the character jump back and forth between narrating the story and being in the story. Anders' facial expressions are priceless, running from amused to bemused to pained to affectionate. He reaches a crescendo in a scene in which he agitatedly keeps hitting a note, asking Mrs. Jenkins to match it, yet knowing that she won't be able to. And he is remarkably touching in the near closing scene where he has to kindly lie through his teeth to reassure Mrs. Jenkins after the Carnegie Hall concert. Additionally, he is a fine pianist and has an easy vocal style with several of his own vocal interludes, including the plot-connected "Crazy Rhythm."  Watching the ease with which the two actors play together in this show is easily one of the highlights of any Seattle Theatre production in memory.

Edie Whitsett has created an elegant, uncluttered set design which neatly transforms from the Ritz Carlton to Carnegie Hall in act two, and Rick Paulsen's dramatically effective lighting design is top notch. Musical director D.J. Gommels must have found unusual challenges working on a show like this, and they are met in a most accomplished manner.

One is not likely to rush out and by one of the albums Florence Foster Jenkins recorded in her lifetime, but a return visit to see Cohenour and Anders in this unique performance is definitely a possibility in my mind.

Souvenir runs through June 10 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street in downtown Seattle. For more information go on-line at www.acttheatre.org.


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David-Edward Hughes



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