Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Sound of Music: Theatre Memphis' "Souvenir" is one of my favorite things

Posted By on Wed, Dec 9, 2009 at 2:40 PM

Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
I'm not going to blog a full review of Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. I'll save that for next week's Memphis Flyer. I will say however, that I was haunted by the immortal words of the Scottish poet William McGonagall as I strolled through Theatre Memphis' sculpture garden on the way to my car:

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 (as savvy readers may have already guessed) is renowned not for its brilliance but for its wretchedness. Yet, 180-years after his death, collections of the horrid master's work remain in print and on a good night I can quote him nearly as well as I can recite Shakespeare. There is a place, you see, where awfulness and earnestness combine to create something truly 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 can ever be. This thing of which I speak is a rare but real quality, found not only in the works of McGonagall but also in the cinema of Ed Wood, and in the recordings of Florence Foster Jenkins, a tone-deaf opera singer who, having no sense of rhythm or phrasing, presented herself as one of the greatest sopranos of the early 20th-Century.

Jenkins' singing wasn't just bad, it was absurd and Jude Knight—a tremendous vocalist well known to Memphis audiences for her star turns in too many musicals to mention— brilliantly lowers herself into the role. Like an actor contorting himself to play The Elephant Man, she bends and twists her beautiful voice into something truly horrific, evoking riotous laughter and genuine adoration. Stephen Temperley's script leaves many interesting questions about Jenkins' life unasked and unanswered, turning the singer into the concert hall equivalent of a circus sideshow. But Knight's performance—easily one of the best she's given—more than makes up for any textural deficiencies.

Souvenir may ride along on Jenkins' feather-lined coattails, but it is also the story of Cosme McMoon, the anti-diva's less famous accompanist. 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 both the world around him and his own internal struggles. Within the framework of this tender comedy, he finds true existential terrors, becoming a mirror for every observer's worst fear. Could it be that we all walk through life as oblivious to our shortcomings as Madame Flo? Or, as my grandfather so elegantly phrased it, “Did you know that a dog can't smell his self?”

Well, I said I wasn't going to write a full review, so I'll end now by repeating McGonagall: “Visit the theatre without delay.” You won't be sorry.

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