REVIEW: ‘Souvenir’ Offers Hilarious, Uplifting Take on Florence Foster Jenkins at NC Stage Company

Jono Mainelli and Callan White star in “Souvenir.” Photo by Nina Swann Photography

“Souvenir” is an intense, joyful ride into the psyche of a passionate, generous and true artist who never had delusions of grandeur, only of pitch.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Some 11 years before the Meryl Streep film made Florence Foster Jenkins a household name, Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir” was causing a stir on the Great White Way.

Subtitled “A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” this lovely, moving piece of fiction re-introduced the wealthy socialite with a questionable voice to New York patrons, who had long forgotten her legendary 1944 sell-out concert at Carnegie Hall.

Told from the perspective of her fellow mediocre pianist Cosmé McMoon (played here by Jono Mainelli), the play begins in 1964 and flashes back to 1932, when he first meets this colorful ambitious woman, played eloquently by Callan White.

White, who embraces this gregarious, spirited lady with open arms and closed eardrums, immediately absconds with this part to illustrious heights. She is a very proper, complex individual with a passion and knowledge of music matched only by her resolve to share her “gift” with her fellow music patrons in a series of recitals over the next dozen years at the Grand Ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and a series of popular recordings.

Fancying herself a coloratura soprano, Lady Flo is determined to conquer the great arias by Mozart, Verdi, Gounod and Brahms, though McMoon discovers she is no Lily Pons. In fact, she is hardly a singer at all and Mainelli’s priceless expression of stupefaction when he first rehearses with her exemplifies this epiphany to our great satisfaction.

But he soon grows to admire his employer for her tenacity in attempting Adele’s “The Laughing Song” from “Die Fledermaus” and “Queen of the Night” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” In fact, he even questions his own musical foundation: Was she delusional or did she have dementia?

And its Ms. Jenkins cultish following that takes the duo all the way to a sold-out performance (selling out faster that Ole Blue Eyes Frank Sinatra himself)  at Carnegie Hall in 1944 where highbrow meets the low brow with celebrities like Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead and Cole Porter in attendance.

White (recently in the extended run of “Jeeves In Bloom” and in last year’s thrilling Immediate Theatre Project production of “Who’s Afraid of ‘Virginia Woolf?”, captures Florence’s zest for life with absolute certitude. It takes talent to sing this badly and she exudes measure of empathy and sincerity as she prefers to sing with the figurative rose-colored glasses not out of vanity, but love for the music.

And as she performs the glorious Carnegie concert in a rapid succession of Anna Hazen’s outlandish costumes for every number, Ms. White has no delusion of perfect pitch. After all, “the notes are really just a guidepost.”

Mainelli’s McMoon, played by Simon “The Big Bang Theory”  Helberg in the celebrated film, has charm, flair for the dramatics, and exceptional skill on the piano. He is uber-qualified as a music director and has tickled the ivories on Broadway in “Mamma Mia!” and “Beauty and the Beast” and worked with divas from Patti Lupone and Jo Anne Worley to Charles Busch to Celeste Holm.

Though it is clearly based in fact, “Souvenir” reveals surprisingly few details about either Cosmé  (other than an occasional reference to breaking up with his boyfriend) or Jenkins.  We gleam that she adored music from an early age, having given a recital at the White House (during the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes) and that her father cut off her inheritance briefly because she wanted to pursue a musical career.

But what “Souvenir” does offer is an engrossing tableaux that questions the very definition of art. And by the play’s end, we will never listen to “Ave Marie” the same again.

“Souvenir” is directed lovingly by NC Stage co-founder Charlie Flynn-McIver with exquisite, hand-painted regal scenic design by Julie Ross, lighting by Catori Swann and props by Jessica Tandy Kammerud.

“Souvenir” continues through April 2, Wednesday-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and select Saturdays at 2 p.m.at North Carolina Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane in Asheville. Call (828) 239-0263 or visit ncstage.org.

 

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