Every one of us has family members or friends who think that they can sing, but whose caterwauling sets the neighborhood dogs to barking for miles around. Perhaps, no one was more deliriously self-deluded in this regard than 1930s and 1940s New York news media sensation Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), who not only fancied herself as an opera singer with perfect pitch — but as a coloratura soprano! — and gave a series of recitals. First came private affairs with invited audiences, but later she gave public performances to raise money for worthy causes.
Jenkins even made a few surprisingly successful recordings — all without ever realizing that she was a laughingstock for a growing legion of fickle fans, who showed up at her concerts to snigger as she mangled Messrs. Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, etc. (To hear samples of Florence Foster Jenkins’ singing, click http://www.youtube.com/.)
Wednesday’s opening-night performance of the current Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh presentation of Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins by Stephen Temperley is a real knee-slapper, starring Lisa Jolley as Jenkins and Jonas Cohen as her long-suffering and increasingly concerned piano accompanist, teacher, and friend Cosmé McMoon, who becomes more and more fearful that one day soon Mrs. J will discover that the joke is on her! But Florence Foster Jenkins is inexplicably oblivious to the smothered laughs and stifled snorts of her audiences.
Broadway veteran Lisa Jolley may be the headliner in the preshow publicity, but the plum part is that of New York actorand pianist Jonas Cohen, who is performing the role of Cosmé McMoon for the fifth time. Cosmé is an openly gay man at a time when most gay men were deep “in the closet.” He is also temperamental with a capital T, and Cohen squeezes every delicious drop out of this juicy role as Mrs. Jenkins accompanist, teacher, and confidant, who doubles as the show’s narrator of the series of flashbacks occasioned by the 20th anniversary of her death in 1944.
Jenkins’ bellows and screeches are fingernails on Cosmé’s personal blackboard, yet he endures them for the sake of friendship and a stipend that keeps food on his table and a roof over his head.
Meanwhile, Lisa Jolley plays the supremely self-confident but clueless Florence Foster Jenkins as straight as a die as she butchers aria after aria from the operatic repertoire. It must be tough for this superlative actress and singer to cast aside the keen self-awareness and intelligence that she brings to each role and sing song after song hilariously off-key.
Director Richard Roland gets nicely nuanced, fully three-dimensional performances from Lisa Jolley and Jonas Cohen, and Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh patrons get a welcome respite from the is-so, is-not childish churlishness of the current election season.
Scenic designer Chris Bernier’s splendid evocation of Mrs. Jenkins’ music room, complete with a baby grand piano, and costume designer Vicki Olson’s eye-catching creations — especially Jenkins’ outrageously campy and over-the-top wardrobe for her 1944 Carnegie Hall concert — also deserve their own special round of applause.
Bravo to the Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh cast and crew for a thoroughly delightful presentation in which they resurrect one of the most notorious characters in American performing-arts history. Kitsch has never sounded so sweet. Souvenir is truly a night to remember.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 4th Raleigh, NC NBC 17 “My Carolina Today” interview with Lisa Jolley: http://www2.nbc17.com/lifestyles/2012/oct/03/1/hot-summer-nights-souvenir-10794-vi-52177/; and Oct. 4th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/10/04/2390238/duo-brings-heart-tugs-laughter.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of Triangle Theater Review’s Oct. 3rd preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/10/souvenir-is-an-affectionate-tribute-to-a-wealthy-would-be-opera-singer-who-couldnt-sing/.)
Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh presents SOUVENIR: A FANTASIA ON THE LIFE OF FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS at 8 p.m. Oct. 6, 3 p.m. Oct. 7, 8 p.m. Oct. 10-13, and 3 p.m. Oct. 14 in Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
BOX OFFICE: 866-811-4111 or https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/27655.
INFORMATION/GROUP RATES: 919-480-5166.
Hot Summer Nights: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/.
The Play: http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=3760 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.souvenirbroadway.com/ (official Broadway website), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Souvenir_(play) (Wikipedia), and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=401922 (Internet Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Florence Foster Jenkins (bio): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Foster_Jenkins (Wikipedia).
Florence Foster Jenkins (on YouTube): http://www.youtube.com/.
The Director: http://www.richardroland.com/ (official website).
Lisa Jolley: https://www.facebook.com/lisajolley43 (Facebook).
Jonas Cohen: https://www.facebook.com/jonas.cohen.75 (Facebook).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.