Friday, February 16, 2018

"Souvenir" is a keeper: Florence Foster Jenkins sings at Theatre Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Feb 16, 2018 at 11:22 AM

click to enlarge David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of  Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.
  • David Shipley (left) and Jude Knight star in Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins at Theatre Memphis in the Next Stage, February 9 -25, 2018.

Friends, Memphians, Theatre lovers, lend me your ears so that I may share with you the worst, most beautiful sound you've ever heard. I'm here to praise Souvenir: A Fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (the tone deaf diva who thought she had perfect pitch), not to bury it. But maybe a moment of that too.

The magic trick that makes Souvenir so special is that it presents us with confident singing that's so painfully off key and rhythm-free  it makes us double over laughing. But it's not Madame Flo who takes us on this journey, it's her long suffering accompanist Cosme McMoon. And like McMoon, by the time all is said and done, we're left to wonder if Jenkins wasn't differently gifted — touched, like any other visionary artist, by angels and so compelled to make art whether she had the technical skills or not.

"It's the music in your head that matters," McMoon says, or words to that effect. When this idea drops, a kind of beauty emerges from the disaster of Jenkins' singing.


Theatre Memphis' charming, original (local) cast revival is a textbook example of how, particularly with small cast shows, technical improvements don't always improve things. Enlargements may even compete with performers, making them seem smaller and more isolated than they might in a less busy environment. TM's last Souvenir was done on the cheap, and you could tell. But by staying small and leaving much to the imagination, the crummy set accomplished what good design is supposed to do. It made Souvenir's two actors the focal point, not a chandelier or the painted floors. The revival's no worse than the original, but it's no better either. Simply said, the more sumptuous, and admittedly swell, scenic design doesn't leave much room for the music in our heads. This is all more food for thought than actual complaint as the design effectively drops viewers into the world of New York's upper crust during the 30's and 40's, where McMoon and Jenkins, as played by David Shipley and Jude Knight, take audiences on a strange tour fraught with delusion, meanness and uncommon generosity. 

As local theater fans all know, Knight has a powerful, lovely voice. It takes an especially gifted and giving singer to sing so badly so beautifully, with such precise imprecision and confidence. It also takes a special kind of vulnerability to let yourself be laughed at, as has always been the case with Jenkins who was never anything less than sincere. Souvenir taps our reflexive cruelty as efficiently as a doctor checking reflexes, but never judges us for the reflexive mockery. If anything, it's a warts and all lesson in how to overcome crazy obstacles and love, love, love. It's no romance, but perfect for the weekend after Valentine's Day. And Knight's second time around performance is every bit as great and guileless as it was when she first stepped into Jenkins' tiara and angel wings.

Some of Shipley's mugging and milking of laughter feels forced. But he's grown considerably in this revival and that's especially obvious in Souvenir's more emotionally challenging (if no less hilarious) second act. He's an engaging narrator. We feel his personal transformation. More than that, as his own opinions shift, he  changes our attitudes about Jenkins obnoxious singing as well. 

I've already written a fair amount about Jenkins and Souvenir so I'll link some of that here, for the curious, rather than repeat myself.  I don't have much left to say other than to encourage folks to check out this disproportionately satisfying little paint-by-numbers play that, like the artist it essays, spills color outside all the lines and is never quite as paint-by-numbers as it seems.

This fantasia on the life of an unlikely (pre YouTube) celebrity will make you want to stand up and sing whether it's advisable or not.

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