The Rep's "Souvenir" hits all the wrong notes in all the right ways
You know that eccentric, overenthusiastic aunt who insists on leading carols around the piano at Christmastime, singing a bit too loudly and a little off-key? The one who warbles with such fervor that no one has the heart to tell her how little musical talent she has?
That's the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite who became a singing sensation in the 1930s and '40s precisely because what she lacked in vocal ability, she made up for in conviction. It's also the story of "Souvenir," a light and entertaining two-person musical playing at the Milwaukee Rep's Stackner Cabaret through Nov. 5. Narrated by her reluctant accompanist Cosme (the uber-talented Jack Forbes Wilson), the show traces the evolution of Jenkins's performing career and the unlikely friendship that develops between the tone-deaf diva and her pianist over many years.
Right from the start, it's easy enough to sympathize with Cosme's plight: A young musician and composer hoping to be discovered in New York City, he needs work to pay the bills. Rehearsing with Jenkins for hours on end in the music room at the Ritz Carlton, playing classical arias for a blissfully ignorant but generous woman of means, was supposed to be a temporary gig — painful to the ear, but good for the bank account.
But to Cosme's dismay and utter disbelief, Jenkins finds greater success with every concert she gives. The would-be coloratura squeaks, hiccups and searches in vain for the right notes – and somehow develops a large following that lands her record contracts and sold-out engagements. Like a viral video of the world's worst karaoke performance, Jenkins attracted thousands of gawkers who explode in laughter at the horrible sounds that emanate from the stately woman, made more absurd by her belief that she is a truly gifted opera star.
As the beleaguered pianist, Wilson is a delight. A reality check for the audience, his face contorts each time the soprano opens her mouth to sing; we all wince in unison. Head in his hands, he moans at the irony of finally playing Carnegie Hall, as the musical accompaniment to a laughing stock. Speaking directly to the packed room, Wilson's Cosme shares his shock and disbelief that one so untalented could also be so unaware. This leads to his growing fear of an unkind audience, his mounting frustration and, finally, his genuine affection for this unlikely singing sensation.
And Wilson's own musical prowess cannot be overstated. Actor, singer, accompanist and music director for the show, his hands move so fluidly over the keys he truly makes Mozart – and everything else he plays – look effortless. With a pleasant, unassuming voice, he also shuffles through several upbeat, jazzy tunes, entertaining the audience as he mourns his plight. Truly at home telling stories at the keyboard, it's easy to see why Wilson sold out extended runs of his "Liberace!" one man show in the Stackner several seasons ago.
While Wilson plays the part of the exasperated straight man in this talent show gone wrong, Marguerite Willbanks has an even more challenging role: to sing terribly while seeming to revel in every note (and I mean TERRIBLY). But Willbanks's extraordinarily heartfelt, understated performance only heightens the comedy as she physically collides with high notes, fumbles through phrases and gropes for melodies.
While a tin ear comes naturally to many, Willbanks is a seasoned Broadway performer and veteran of many national tours of musicals – she has even legit performed in Carnegie Hall. The full weight of her accomplishment at sounding so bad isn't apparent until the show's final number, when Cosme imagines the music that Jenkins must hear in her head — the perfect, beautiful, soaring notes of "Ave Maria" that gave the opening night audience chills.
It's hard not to compare "Souvenir" to the 2016 movie that also told this story: "Florence Foster Jenkins," starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. Nominated for two Academy Awards, the film tells a much more complicated and intricate story of Jenkins's life, with dozens of characters and a gorgeous period backdrop. Next to the Hollywood version, this musical seems very small – in both scope and emotional depth. It lopes along with the singular conflict of an accompanist horrified by both his star's performances and her fame, exploding only once into an actual argument. In fact, the drama of the second act is driven almost entirely by the parade of fabulous costumes that Jenkins dons for her performance at Carnegie Hall (kudos to costume designer Jason Orlenko for some truly over-the-top ensembles).
Fortunately, both versions focus on an important through line: Cosme's admiration for his diva's commitment to her music. He marvels at her love of the form and the actual joy that she gave so many people in her audiences, whether it was intended or not. That is one place where the production definitely hits all the right notes.
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