The Washington Post
Studio’s ‘Souvenir’: Laughter on a High Note
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.