Note worthies: David Beach and Patricia Dell in Kitchen Theatre’s Souvenir.
For the current production at Ithaca’s
Kitchen Theatre Company, helpful program notes explain, augmenting the
exposition in Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,
how this came about. Jenkins was a woman of considerable inherited
wealth who lived at the Ritz-Carlton. The family had made its money
around Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Florence’s father, a banker-lawyer named
Foster, knew his daughter’s limitations and so refused her the chance
to study music in Europe. After her elopement to a hapless Dr. Jenkins
ended in divorce, and her father’s death, Florence inherited the first
part of her fortune and an indulgent mother, who allowed music lessons
as long as she never performed in public.
When the mother died in 1928, loosening
strings to the rest of the money, Florence, perhaps now 60, could
follow her heartfelt indulgences. This first meant private concerts for
friends at the Ritz. When these drew standing-room-only crowds,
recordings and public concerts followed.
The action begins when Madame Florence hires an
accompanist, Cosme McMoon. No playwright would ever invent such a name,
and the real McMoon lives on in recordings still for sale on
Amazon.com. Temperley’s Cosme, on the other hand, is a superb
theatrical creation, an ironic yet sympathetic narrator, whose demeanor
allows us to laugh, to gasp in horror, or to let the emotions flow.
He’s a still-in-the-closet gay man (Madame Flo never sees this; we do
immediately) who needs the money and would also like to advance his own
faltering career as a songwriter. He comes to fill more and more of her
needs. At the keyboard he’s adroit with Mozart and Brahms, but
privately favors Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.”
Cosme counts more as a character
performed than as a character written. Read the text, and there’s not
much there. Much relies on intonation, gesture and musical timing. New
York City actor David Beach and director Sara Lampert Hoover have
fashioned a character of wildly different, even contradictory, emotions
that range from incredulous disgust to love. Some actions are broad,
like banging his head on the keyboard, but more often they’re subtle,
like the barely perceptible recognition that flutters across a cheek.
This confiding intimacy has been designed to reach audiences in the
73-seat Kitchen Theatre. It’s going to be hard to duplicate this
tete-a-tete confidence in the 499-seat Archbold Theater when Syracuse
Stage produces Souvenir next January.
Singing really badly consistently takes hard work, like the persistently missed cues in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.
Red-haired Patricia Dell does not signal to us that she’s above the
material and instead lets her voice wander over the scale and can’t
find a B flat to save herself. “Oh, that modern mania for accuracy!”
her Madame Florence complains to Cosme. Despite the horrid sounds she
makes, we can hear the trained breathing and intonation. Dell has sung
opera and is something of a Kander-Ebb specialist. Similarly, Dell’s
lobby photo shows a more glamorous performer under the body corset and
heavy makeup and is at least a generation younger than the character on
stage. No matter. Dell gives us what the script calls for, which is
what the man calls acting.
This could easily have been a one-joke comedy, which it is not. Souvenir differs greatly from Peter Quilter’s Glorious!, also based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins. It opened in London about the same time as Souvenir, did
better box office, won more awards and has been translated into more
languages, but it’s crueler and shallower. Quilter’s Florence is a
broadly comic figure, much like an extension of the frog-voiced Lina
Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain. She doesn’t have as many places to go as Souvenir’s Florence.
In Souvenir Dell makes Madame
Florence into a more sympathetic Margaret Dumont, who is partly a
straight woman for Cosme’s commentary. While it has been true at least
since the time of Moliere that vain, self-deceiving egotists are the
prime targets for comedy, Cosme keeps asking us to see her differently.
She might be a rebel against standards imposed by nameless forces from
without. All the allusions to Mozart in Souvenir invite the suggestion that playwright Temperley would like us to see the play as the reverse of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus
in which mediocrity triumphs. As Cosme tells us, Florence is not
encumbered by adversity and finds that each succeeding performance
makes her happier and happier.
The tensions in Souvenir lead to
two reversals that can only be teased at and not fully revealed.
Telling the “truth” is one way for a gay man to show his love for an
The small size of Ithaca’s Kitchen
Theatre in no way implies any diminution of professional standards.
Teresa Sears’ many period costumes, a new one for every scene, gives us
a society dame at home in the Ritz or the Sherry Netherlands (where
Florence also performed), not an unstylish rube from Wilkes-Barre. Ali
Golden’s scenic design enforces the authenticity of the setting,
well-lighted by E.D. Intemann. Thom Baker’s musical direction makes
sure that the music and comedy are in the right places.
Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre once again sets
a high mark, this time in a comedy with more heart than we had any
right to expect. We’ll see next January if the hometown team can do as
This production runs through June 29. See Times Table for information.