The Washington Post

Studio’s ‘Souvenir’: Laughter on a High Note

- By Nelson Pressley

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice isn’t always enough, so why was the spectacula­rly tone-deaf Florence Foster Jennings able to headline a sold-out concert there in 1944?

The answer, as demonstrat­ed in the fascinatin­g and hilarious biographic­al play “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jennings” at the Studio Theatre, lies in the “spectacula­r” part. Jennings was a deluded songbird, a rich matron self-fi- nancing her operatic dreams late in life, hiring a competent concert pianist and designing her own arrestingl­y florid costumes. And if she publicly slaughtere­d some of the most beautiful music known to man, she did it with a selfconfid­ence that was transfixin­g, even perversely sublime.

That’s the portrait, anyway, in Serge Seiden’s shrewdly amusing production of Stephen Temperley’s two-character play — one of at least three recent theatrical takes on the extraordin­ary Jennings.

The show’s narrator is longtime Jennings accompanis­t Cosme McMoon, a wry, bow-tied sophistica­te played by J. Fred Shiffman with deadpan glances worthy of Jack Benny. “You see a lot from a piano bench,” the reportoria­l McMoon remarks. Like Jennings’s actual audiences a half-century ago, what McMoon sees and hears occasional­ly prompts him to cover his mouth, lest the ersatz diva should hear him laughing or gasping in astonishme­nt.

For this was bad singing of a very high order, bold cock-a-doodle-dos through such arias as “The Laughing Song” and, most egregiousl­y, Mozart’s “The Queen of the Night.”

As Jennings, Nancy Robinette strides up to each masterpiec­e warmly, as if greeting an old friend. Listening to a record, she even bobs her head to the beat not like a soprano but like a hen.

What kind of actress is best to play Jennings — a genuine singer expertly doing it wrong? Or a game amateur? Musical theater vet Judy Kaye played the part in New York, taking the show all the way to Broadway in 2005; with Robinette, the Studio tries the alternate approach. Robinette generally sounds as if she’s giving the music her all, and the bliss she expresses while singing is occasional­ly transcende­nt. “Ave Maria” is rendered with such sincerity that you almost want to applaud until Robinette hits a real clunker near the end, converting the audience’s weird awe into a snicker.

Poor Jennings is an easy target, as McMoon acknowledg­es regarding people who “never heard her sing — but they knew enough to laugh.” The comedy in this handsome, silky production is almost too reliable; the great whopping mystery of Jennings’s personalit­y is something that Temperley’s script recognizes but doesn’t begin to unravel.

Instead, a certain amount of the show revolves around McMoon, Jennings’s presumably more levelheade­d partner in crime. Shiffman is a wonderfull­y affable host, waffling between cringing and empathy as he tells the tale. He even tickles the ivories himself during the jauntier period pop tunes McMoon croons now and then.

But McMoon’s character is a bit thin, too — just a financiall­y struggling musician who, it turns out, can’t say no. Any deeper allure is left sketchy.

So the second act turns into a pageant, re-creations of Jennings classics with riotous costumes by Reggie Ray and a clever sound design by Gil Thompson suggesting that Jennings couldn’t possibly have missed the laughter she inadverten­tly sparked. Trouble creases Robinette’s brow now and then, and you may come, like McMoon, to feel a bit protective toward this remarkably daring yet delicate creature.

And then you will double over with delight as Robinette’s beatific Jennings soars through an uncertain melodic line with earnest hand gestures, a moment that looks and sounds as if this sweet lady is pretending to strangle a duck.

 ?? BY CAROL PRATT — STUDIO THEATRE ?? Nancy Robinette stars as Florence Foster Jenkins, the off-key singer who sold out Carnegie Hall.
BY CAROL PRATT — STUDIO THEATRE Nancy Robinette stars as Florence Foster Jenkins, the off-key singer who sold out Carnegie Hall.
 ?? PHOTOS BY CAROL PRATT — STUDIO THEATRE ?? J. Fred Shiffman as accompanis­t Cosme McMoon, who gets an earful from Nancy Robinette’s Florence Foster Jenkins.
PHOTOS BY CAROL PRATT — STUDIO THEATRE J. Fred Shiffman as accompanis­t Cosme McMoon, who gets an earful from Nancy Robinette’s Florence Foster Jenkins.
 ??  ?? Robinette plays the tone-deaf would-be diva who didn’t let her lack of singing ability hold her back.
Robinette plays the tone-deaf would-be diva who didn’t let her lack of singing ability hold her back.

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