FORT SALEM THEATER presents Souvenir: The Florence Foster Jenkins Musical
July 14-16 • Friday & Saturday at 8 PM • Sunday at 2 PM
CoProduction with Bridge Street Theatre, Catskill (performed 3/16-26, 2017)
J. Peter Bergman, Berkshire Bright Focus
At the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, New York three people have taken center stage, each in a different way. Florence Foster Jenkins, the almost imperturbable diva of the 1930s and 1940s hates to give center to anyone else and, as portrayed in the Florence Hayle directed version of her story, she and her accompanist Cosme McMoon vie for that position like prizefighters in the match of their lives. It is a fight to the death and what happens here is a no-fail situation as both characters and their director never leave that position and they survive together for eternity.
This play had its true premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival about a dozen years ago. It has, since, played on Broadway and all across the country. Madame Jenkins was the subject of a Meryl Streep film this past year, garnering for its star another Oscar nomination. The character is a can't miss falling star who threatens to leave a crater in her wake, and in this production she truly makes her mark. Alison Davy, who plays Jenkins, is a dynamo with the most wonderfully weird performance manner and sound. She is unstoppable. She is laughably brilliant. Her most solemn, human moments touch you to the depths of your humorous soul and you find yourself sympathizing with your laughter time and again.
This classically trained singer/actress makes all the right choices in her vocal delivery. It is important that you read her program bio to understand that the woman has the chops to deliver on every single musical number she performs in this play, but know before you go that the play won't let her do that. It is said, over and over, that in her head Jenkins hears the music in her own voice as perfectly performed, ideally delivered. What comes out of her mouth, however. is the last thing you would expect: bad notes, disregarded melodies, quirky rhythms. Davy wonderfully performs every song with nuanced mania and bell-toned dystopia. I loved every minute of her performance.
Musician Jay Kerr plays musician Cosme McMoon. McMoon is that impotent victim of the rich lady who sings, the accompanist who cannot find his way out of the room and so remains there for thirteen years trying to either find the door or build a new one. Kerr as McMoon reminiscing about his diva twenty years later, is lovely with just the right sense of the sardonic as he tells his story, for this is his story as much as it is hers. He plays piano with a carefree touch, sings popular songs and classical arias with equal grace. He lets us enjoy McMoon's fate while showing us how a man can be roped and tied and harnassed against his will while still glorying in his unasked for fate.
As the center of the story, when he is allowed to be the center, Kerr delivers nicely on every point. When it is time to give Florence Foster Jenkins her moments, especially in Act Two, he is the perfect foil, the ideal accompanist, narrating through the costume changes, changing the mood for each number to come. An excellent accompanist himself, Kerr brings an even balance to the professional and personal relationships of his character to hers.
One major difference here from the afore-mentioned film (not drawn from this play) is that Kerr's McMoon never really disparages his lady-friend. Here he plays a man incidentally smitten with something he can never personally achieve, a social level of existence that she holds like a carrot on a string in front of a crippled rabbit, an offering never quite consumed. Kerr plays his rabbit with an eagerness that falls into a love-match never to be consummated.
Act Two gives this duo their Carnegie Hall triumph. Here they share the limelight. Here they both give us the exacting and exhausting experience of a lifetime. Here Flo Hayle, the director, shines through the middle. She, too, has known that center-stage existence and as she moves her two players in and out of their self-absorbed performances the three merge into a single unit of lyrical appearance. My only qualm about the entire production lives in this part of the play when the costumes given to Madame Jenkins are just not the quirky curios that I anticipated. Outside of that, Hayle's vision is a choice one, a grand one. She has delivered her charges, Flo and Cosme, pretty well wrapped in pretty parchment and a grand old satin bow.
John Sowle's sets and lights are nicely presented. Kaitlyn Day's costumes are treasures but don't go far enough; also since the play moves from the late 1920s through the mid 1940s it would have been nice to see hemlines rise, fall and rise again to help guide us through time. Carmen Borgia's sound design works very well, but a bit more volume on the record player would have helped. Kudos to the dressers for their quick delivery of Jenkins' concert moments as well.
Temperley's play has a warm spot in my heart. It is modestly flawed but so very playable and with the right director and cast, such as we have in this production, it sparkles with humor, touches the warm places and is so very enjoyable. This is a nice way to make the move from winter into spring as it reminds us that no one with power is above a little laughter at his or her expense. Especially if they have the money to keep them above it somehow.
THEATER (The Alt)
Florence Foster Jenkins comes alive in Bridge Street Theatre’s Souvenir
B.A. Nilsson | Wednesday, March 22 2017
Perhaps it was a more genteel time back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The salon audiences for whom Florence Foster Jenkins performed stifled their laughter and applauded their support. They were a patrician bunch. Cole Porter never missed her Ritz ballroom concerts.
The consensus is that Mme. Jenkins was wildly deluded, her lack of musical awareness probably aggravated by the syphilis she contracted as a teen. Thanks to a comfortable inheritance, she became a society dowager and indulged her passion for music with a voice so dreadful that those who heard her live swore that the handful of recordings she left behind barely do justice to the awfulness of the experience.
Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir is subtitled A Fantasia, and the playwright uses the facts of the woman’s life to imagine what might have driven her to inflict her unique performing style upon her friends – and, eventually, to a gloriously sold-out night at Carnegie Hall.
But even more compelling is the story of the pianist she worked with, Cosme McMoon. We meet him in the 1960s. He’s playing cocktail piano, and welcomes us with the greatest of all saloon songs, “One for My Baby.”
“You can never hear what other people hear,” he tells us between stanzas, preparing us for the meeting that will change his life. As McMoon, Jay Kerr brings the triple-threat talents of actor, singer, and pianist to the role: entirely convincing as a nightclub chanteur, he then inhabits his forty-years-younger self, revealing an ambitious but cautious young man who needs money but has a calling to pursue.
It’s 1927. The 24-year-old McMoon visits the 16th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to audition for the eccentric Foster Jenkins, who proves to be completely disarming in an overbearing way.
“What matters most is the music you hear in your head,” she declares, noting how difficult it is “to find an accompanist on one’s own level.” Alison Davy plays the singer with a giddy energy that makes her so endearing that it’s a shock when she launches into “Caro nome.” It’s not just that she sings wildly off key and with only the slightest sense of rhythm: there also are the pig-squeal timbre and mad facial tics to enhance the unpleasantness. Difficult as it is to sing well, it’s even tougher for a terrific singer to sing badly on purpose, and Davy does it with truly admirable awfulness.
As McMoon attempts to school the fluttery diva, we see in Kerr’s face a mixture of frustration and awe – the latter because he’s on the cusp of deciding whether he can work with her, and sensing its inevitability.
With the song “Crazy Rhythm” as a link between McMoon’s reminiscences and the scenes he’s recalling, we get to the poignant heart of the piece. It’s a love story in every way but the conventional. A shared love of music brings these two together, and the relationship finds the much-younger pianist passing through shame into protective fondness, and finally into an emotionally fraught partnership. Even as Kerr is able to lob one-liners at us with sculpted precision.
The second act begins well, deepening the insights into their relationship. “Maybe I’m no better than she is,” McMoon speculates, adding with wonder, “She never had any doubts.”
But a crisis approaches: She has booked that Carnegie Hall recital. “Her folly was so stupendous that you had to admire its scale,” declares her reluctant partner, justifiably worried that this event will open her to the ridicule she’s otherwise avoided.
Temperley’s script reaches an impasse here. To deny us highlights of that recital would be a let-down, yet the examples we see are so absurd, complete with the singer’s absurd changes of costume, that we lose the sympathy that was so carefully nurtured and are forced to join the crowd in jeering at her – although Davy never flags in her character’s self-assurance.
If anything, she’s too affable. I would like to have seen more aristocratic dignity about her; after all, she’s seducing McMoon with money, not talent. But the relationship, in the hands of these fine actors, is always credible – and Davy gets a golden moment at the end of the piece when we’re allowed to hear what Florence Foster Jenkins must have heard in her head, and Gounod’s “Ave Maria” never sounded so good.
It’s another Bridge Street Theatre success (co-produced with Kerr’s Fort Salem Theater), with skilled direction by Florence Hayle and a versatile set by John Sowle. Souvenir is one of a number of plays (and, of course, a movie) focusing on the career of this nonpareil, and it’s the best of them.
Souvenir, Bridge Street Theatre, Catskill, through March 26
Photo by John Sowle
“Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” at the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, NY
Last night I had the great pleasure to see Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins at the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, NY. The play was originally produced by the Off-Broadway York Theatre Company and ran from November 23, 2004 to January 2, 2005. Written by Stephen Temperley and directed by Vivian Matalon it starred Judy Kaye and Jack Lee. On November 10, 2005 the production moved to Broadway and ran at the Lyceum Theatre for 68 performances and fourteen previews. Kaye was nominated for both the 2006 Tony and 2005 Drama Desk Award for her performance…
Currently running through March 26, 2017 is Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a 2-person play, starring Alison Davy as Florence Foster Jenkins and Jay Kerr (also Music Director) as Cosmé McMoon, her accompanist and the narrator of the story. Excellent direction by Florence Hayle, gorgeous and authentic costumes by Kaitlyn Day, Sets and Lights by John Sowle, Sound Design by Carmen Boorgia, the Production Stage Manager is Caedmon Holland and the Dresser is Sue Ward. This is the story of a struggling musician meeting Miss Flo, as he refers to Florence Foster Jenkins, their 12 years together that culminates with her performance at Carnegie Hall in 1944 to a sold-out audience. I found the story to be so very moving— it is a commentary on life and one’s dreams. I’ve seen the movie Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant and this was an excellent addition to the story of this remarkable socialite who followed her dream.
Excellent direction by Florence Hayle, gorgeous and authentic costumes by Kaitlyn Day,
This is a small and intimate Black Box Theater that can accommodate an audience of about 100 people. There are no “bad seats”; as for the lighting, sound, costumes, acting and staging I could have been in a Broadway theatre. This was truly professional theatre and I am thrilled to have it just ½ hour from my home.
Alison Davy and Jay Kerr, both outstanding actors and musicians, have a powerful connection, a bond so strong one forgets they are actors on a stage and not 2 people in a working relationship. The play is heartwarming, loving, funny, and sad.
Co-produced with Fort Salem Theater in Salem, NY Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins will play there on July 14, 15 & 16, 2017.