Chances are you’ve never heard of Florence Foster Jenkins, a self-proclaimed operatic diva of the 1930s/40s whose talent wouldn’t’ fill a thimble but whose unwavering belief in her own musical skills would land her a sold-out gig at Carnegie Hall.
Jenkins and her accompanist, pianist and songwriter Cosme McMoon, are the subject of Stephen Temperley’s “SOUVENIR: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” now playing at the Vagabond Theater in Fells Point.
Scott D. Farquhar plays Cosme and Sherrione Brown, “Madame Flo,” as Cosme refers to her—and both deserve the type of thunderous ovation Ms. Foster-Jenkins often received at her many recitals.
Farquhar does double duty as both an actor and a pianist, playing all manner of pieces throughout the course of the two-act, two-hour play, often singing as well, such as “Violets for Your Furs” and “Crazy Rhythm,” the one “popular song” that Ms. Foster-Jenkins supposedly deigned to like.
Ms. Brown does a superb job in her role of Ms. Foster-Jenkins, a high-society lady from the Margaret-Dumont-of-the-Marx-Brothers mold, whose sole passion in life is music. As my theater companion for the day remarked, “She believes in her ability like a child, totally un-self-conscious,” which is what makes her character so captivating.
As Cosme notes, how could a woman so completely devoid of rhythm, pitch, and tone believe so fervently, so genuinely that her voice was on par with the great sopranos of the age? “Was it delusion? Dementia?” Madame Flo offers the line that provides the best explanation: “All that matters is the music that you hear in your head.”
It takes ability to sing well, but it may take just as much ability to sing poorly while appearing to making a concerted effort to sing well. In other words, Ms. Brown sings badly wonderfully, hooting and tooting like a boiling tea kettle, like an owl on benzedrine. When we the audience are, in the play’s final scene, allowed to hear Madame Flo as perhaps she herself heard her own voice, Ms. Brown reveals a fine talent—kudos to her for finding that voice after nearly two hours of “singing,” if it can be called that, off key, off pitch and off tone.
Ms. Brown also deserves a few tossed bouquets for her many costume changes, particularly during the recreation of Madame Flo’s Carnegie Hall performance in October 1944 as she switched from a Mexican peasant dress complete with maracas (which she shook at the audience like a priest casting incense), to a gun-toting soldier as she merrily butchered Frank Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” to a white-winged angel for her soul-shocking rendition of “Ava Maria.”
There’s real passion in both actors’ performances, and Mr. Farquhar looked visibly moved at the play’s end as his character is surprised to discover just how deeply he loved Madame Flo upon her sudden passing of heart failure.
Credit is due to costumers Ann Mainolfi and Ruth Tanner and to Tony Colavito and Jay Demarco for their set design and construction, creating a simple yet eye-appealing set with such nice touches as the 1920s-era record player, the bright blue-backdrop of the New York city skyline and, of course, a beautiful black grand piano.
“Souvenir,” directed by Roy Hammond, continues its run at the Vagabond Players theater, 806 S. Broadway in Baltimore City, now through July 1st. For more information, visit www.vagabondplayers.org or call 410-563-9135.