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“Souvenir” Is an Affectionate Tribute to a Wealthy Would-Be Opera Singer — Who Couldn’t Sing!

Jonas Cohen and Lisa Jolley in "Souvenir" (photos by Adam Twiss and Keith Tew)

Jonas Cohen and Lisa Jolley in “Souvenir” (photos by Adam Twiss and Keith Tew)

Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh will stage London-born Woodstock, NY dramatist Stephen Temperley’s terrific two-hander, Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a comedy with music starring consummate local comedienne and Broadway veteran Lisa Jolley (Hairspray) as Jenkins and New York actor Jonas Cohen as her flamboyant gay accompanist Cosmé McMoon, on Oct. 3-7 and 10-14 in Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh, NC. According to Wikipedia, Mrs. Foster Jenkins was “an American soprano who became famous for her complete lack of rhythm, pitch, tone, and overall singing ability.”

“My first voice teacher gave me her album to listen to when I was about 14,” recalls Lisa Jolley in preshow publicity. “It was the funniest, scariest thing I’d ever heard.” (To hear samples of Florence Foster Jenkins’ singing, click http://www.youtube.com/.)

Also according to preshow publicity:

“If ‘American Idol’ was around during the 1930s and 1940s, coloratura soprano Florence Foster Jenkins [1868-1944] would definitely have made it through the televised audition round. The prominent heiress, who believed she understood how to properly sing better than anyone else, could have been considered the musical train wreck of the day. Audiences loved to revel in her obvious lack of vocal ability….”

In an exclusive interview with Triangle Theater Review, HSN | TR guest director Richard Roland recalled, “I first saw Souvenir [Off Broadway] at the York Theatre in New York [in December 2004 or January 2005], when the play starred Judy Kaye and Jack Lee, previous to its move to the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway [on Nov. 10, 2005].” (Souvenir’s Broadway run ended on Jan 8, 2006, after 68 performances.)

Roland, who previously staged Barefoot in the Park (June 2010), The 39 Steps (June 2011), and Avenue Q (August 2012) for Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, adds, “What I like best about the show is the questions that are raised about perception. Who hears music the ‘right’ way? What is the ‘right’ way to hear or sing music? Is what we hear different from what others hear? How much did Florence Foster Jenkins really know about her inability to sing?

“The key for directing this piece for me was negotiating those questions,” Roland reveals, “as the friendship grows between Florence and Cosmé — and how they learn to rely heavily on each other.”

In reviewing previous productions of Souvenir, The New York Times called the play “an unexpectedly gentle and affecting comedy,” and Variety saluted the show as “a beguiling comic jewel with a heart.”

The Time Out New York critic wrote, “Life holds up a funhouse mirror to art in Souvenir, Stephen Temperley’s wildly funny and surprisingly touching portrait of real-life musical laughingstock Florence Foster Jenkins … a memorable illustration of the real limits of self-perception, and of the purely theatrical magic that can turn the tinniest ear to gold.”

The New York Daily News added, “Tone-deaf but utterly pitch-perfect. What is extraordinary about Souvenir is that Temperley has made Jenkins, for all her foolishness, a remarkably sympathetic woman. You never doubt that Jenkins has tremendous dedication to the composers whose work she massacres. Kaye makes her devotion to Art incredibly moving. To have made Jenkins a tender, poignant human being is breathtaking…. A kind of loony triumph.”

And the Boston Globe raved, “If you’re lucky enough to see Souvenir …, you’ll have one distinct advantage over Jenkins’ audiences. You won’t have to try to keep your body from shaking or stuff your handkerchief into your mouth to hide your laughter. And laugh you will. Till you cry. Souvenir is downright hilarious…. Temperley has brought to this his own sense of mirth as well as a sensibility that doesn’t settle for mere mirth. Thus, Souvenir raises questions about how we see ourselves and how others see us, how we make music and how we make judgments about people making music…. So, go laugh to your heart’s content. There weren’t many voices as bad as Jenkins’. There aren’t many theatrical experiences as good as Souvenir.”

HSN | TR guest director Richard Roland says, “This memory play opens on Cosmé McMoon (Jonas Cohen) playing piano in a supper club on the 20th anniversary of the death of Florence Foster Jenkins (Lisa Jolley), the New York society matron who unquestioningly believed she had the gift of the true coloratura, when in reality she was tone-deaf and rhythmically challenged — basically possessing no musical abilities whatsoever. He addresses the audience directly; and through a small series of questions, music, and banter, he reminisces about his 12 years with Mrs. Foster Jenkins.

“Through a few landmark scenes, we watch their friendship grow as they gain fame and notoriety in New York. We follow their meetings, rehearsals, and arguments that eventually lead up to her very famous and sold-out appearance at Carnegie Hall in the autumn of 1944,” notes Roland.

In addition to guest director Richard Roland, the Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh creative team for Souvenir includes husband-and-wife producers Alan Campbell and Lauren Kennedy, assistant director Liz Ray, technical director and set and lighting designer Chris Bernier, costume designer Vicki Olson, properties manager Morgan Parpan, sound designer Will Mikes, and stage manager Mike McGee.

“[Set and lighting designer] Chris Bernier has designed a simple and clean set on which a grand piano is always present,” says director Richard Roland. “This piano is the physical centerpiece for our four distinct locations: a supper club in 1964, Mrs. Foster Jenkins’ music room in her suite in the Ritz Carlton from 1932-44, the stage at Carnegie Hall and, finally, Cosmé McMoon’s dressing room at Carnegie Hall. A Victrolla, chair, side table, and settee all make appearances to differentiate the spaces.”

Roland adds, “The lighting is very isolated at times, especially during the super-club scenes, just focusing on Cosmé as he starts to tell the story, or whenever he talks to the audience between memories. When we go into the memory, the entire stage is lit, warmly for the music room and dressing room scenes, and very brightly for the concert segment at Carnegie Hall….

“The costumes, by Vicki Olson, unlike the set, are very literal and help us anchor time and place, specifically the social and economic stature of Mrs. Foster Jenkins,” claims Roland. “Lisa Jolley actually has 13 quick costume changes throughout the evening, the most happening during the recounting of [Florence Foster Jenkins'] world-famous recital at Carnegie Hall!”

New York director Richard Roland adds, “We don’t know that these scenarios actually took place between Cosmé and Florence. These memories are an invention of the playwright — a supposition of what may have happened. What we do know is what happened on the stage at Carnegie Hall in October of 1944 — that notorious event at which patrons went crazy trying to hold back their laughter at the ridiculousness of what was happening on that stage. But there were events that led to that concert, and Mr. Temperley tells a very believable fantasia on how these two people met and, in their own ways, fell in love with each other.”

Roland adds, “A little trivia on this piece: my mother’s voice teacher was Edwin MacArthur, who taught in the famous Hotel Ansonia for decades. He was rumored to have been the real Cosmé McMoon, creating that pseudonym so as not to receive ridicule from colleagues. However, it’s been revealed that Cosmé was indeed his very own person, but … Mr. MacArthur did indeed play for Florence Foster Jenkins (he had told my mother this) and was eventually fired by her because of his inability to stop laughing when she sang!”

Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh presents SOUVENIR: A FANTASIA ON THE LIFE OF FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS at 8 p.m. Oct. 3-6, 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.

TICKETS: $20-$30.

BOX OFFICE: 866-811-4111 or https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/27655.

INFORMATION/GROUP RATES: 919-480-5166.

SHOW/SEASON: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/.

PRESENTERS:

Hot Summer Nights: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/.

Theatre Raleigh: http://www.theatreraleigh.com/.

VENUE: http://www.progressenergycenter.com/venue/kennedy-theatre.

DIRECTIONS: http://www.progressenergycenter.com/directions.

PARKING: http://www.progressenergycenter.com/parking.

OTHER LINKS:

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).

The Playwright: http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=72351 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0854642/ (Internet Movie Database). 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).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

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 preview 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/.



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