Gifted 

Voices celebrates Memphis; Jenkins visits NextStage.

Reviewing audience members is unusual, but Stephanie Beasley is awesome. Her radiant presence on the front row at Voices of the South's eighth installment of Pre-sent Pres-ent made me laugh, cry, and want to see the show again. Okay, perhaps I should explain myself.

Voices of the South's annual holiday show is all about giving, and at intermission the audience draws names and exchanges impromptu gifts. It's a fun way to create brief but meaningful connections between strangers, and nothing fancy is expected. A half-stick of gum will do or whatever you have floating around in your purse or pockets.

I drew Stephanie's name, and having nothing in my pockets but lint, I offered her the one thing I could give: a good review. I'm happy to report that I can pass the same gift to Voices of the South because Pre-sent-Pres-ent 8: Home for the Holidays, a grab bag of theater, dance (thanks to members of Project: Motion), comedy, and spoken word, is pure joy.

As the subtitle suggests, this year's Pre-sent Pres-ent is a celebration of all things Memphis, but the show is at its best when it veers off course and plays with the concept of "home." Jenny Madden and Jerre Dye have created a deliciously wicked ode on death, booze, and spoiled leftovers while Latrelle Bright's interactive poem about where she and planet Earth are going may be the evening's high-water mark.

The show's closing sketch, an attempt to wring a narrative from song lyrics about Memphis, seriously flirts with arty self-parody as actors move about the stage clutching record albums and reciting their lines "with feeling." But that is tolerable taken as a small part of an often whimsical and occasionally touching show about people Memphians know and places they've been.

Pre-sent Pres-ent is hosted by Steve Swift's indomitable Sister Myotis, the reigning queen of Christian Evangelatainment in Memphis. Swift alone is worth the price of admission.

Through December 20th at TheatreWorks

While strolling through Theatre Memphis' sculpture garden following a performance of Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, I was haunted by the words of poet William McGonagall:

I will say without dismay

Visit the theatre without delay

Because the theatre is a school of morality

And hasn't the least tendency to lead to prodigality.

So true. But I digress ... McGonagall's verse is renowned not for its brilliance but for its wretchedness. There is a place where awfulness and earnestness combine to create something special — something ridiculous yet as endearing and truthful as a child's painting. And as comical as these abominations may be, they have the power of authenticity and are somehow more intrinsically human than any display of virtuosity. This thing of which I speak is a rare but real quality, found not only in the works of McGonagall but in the recordings of Florence Foster Jenkins, the world's worst opera singer.

Jenkins' singing wasn't just bad. It was absurd, and Jude Knight — a vocalist well known to Memphis audiences for her star turns in too many musicals to mention — brilliantly lowers herself into the role, contorting her voice into something horrific. The end result is a weird combination of riotous laughter and respect for a woman who snatched limited fame and qualified success from the jaws of total inadequacy.

Stephen Temperly's script isn't much of a biography, but it's not supposed to be. It's Jenkins' story seen through the eyes of Cosme McMoon, the anti-diva's accompanist, a musician struggling with his own feelings of failure. Actor/musician David Shipley brings McMoon to life with a subtlety that verges on underacting but grows through the course of the show. Like Jack Benny, he's at his best when he's silently responding to the world around him and his own internal struggles. Within the framework of this tender comedy, Shipley finds true existential terrors, becoming a mirror for every observer's worst fear: that we are all as oblivious to our shortcomings as Madame Flo.

Under the seamless direction of Bennett Wood, Souvenir is a disarming charmer. It's destined to rack up Ostrander nominations next August. Write it down.

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