Ambler’s Act II Playhouse offers a delightful musical confection for the holiday season. Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of an “infamously bad singer who became a household name and a music legend.”
Born Narcissa Florence Foster in 1868, Jenkins came from a wealthy Wilkes Barre, PA, family. Her lifelong passion for performing began when she was seven. A talented pianist, she appeared at society functions as "Little Miss Foster"; she even gave a recital at the White House during President Rutherford B. Hayes’s administration. After graduating from high school, her hopes of studying music in Europe were dashed when her father refused permission—and funding.
Devastated, 17-year-old Florence eloped with Frank Jenkins, a physician, who was 16 years her senior. A year later, she discovered she had contracted syphilis from her husband; she ended their relationship, never speaking of him again. Florence moved from Philadelphia to New York City in 1900; within a couple of years, she began a live-in relationship with a young actor, St. Clair Bayfield. Upon the death of her father in 1909, Ms. Jenkins inherited a vast trust fund, which, in addition to supporting many charities, she used to finance her theatrical endeavors.
Reviving a cult favorite
Under the deft direction of Tony Braithwaite and starring April Woodall, Stephen Temperley’s play lovingly chronicles Florence’s time as a “cult favorite” in New York and the private concerts she gave at the Ritz Hotel there. The action starts in 1927, with her longtime accompanist Cosme McMoon (Sonny Leo) serving as the audience’s guide. Cosme has just moved to the big city from his native Mexico; desperate for work, he takes a job with Ms. Jenkins. He wrestles with his conscience regarding her abilities, wondering how she does not realize she can’t carry a tune while at the same time happy to have steady work.
Leo does a great job of engaging the audience as he narrates the tale of their association. He handles the humor well, but there were a few moments of deeper emotion that didn’t quite hit the mark. Leo’s singing and piano playing are terrific—his vocals are the perfect balance to the wailing of Ms. Jenkins.
Woodall is an absolute delight in the title role, deftly blending comedy and pathos. What makes her performance even more amazing is the fact she is a classically trained singer—she studied at the Curtis Institute. She manages to present Ms. Jenkins’s completely off-key vocals with totally uninhibited joy. A quick Google search will lead one to recordings of the original—how Ms. Woodall does not ruin her voice is beyond me. The story culminates with Jenkins’s only public performance—a concert at Carnegie Hall, which Woodall brings to hilarious life.
Following your bliss
The technical elements hit all the right notes—from the elegant music-room setting by Parris Bradley, to the lovely lighting from Eric Baker, to the fabulous 1920s and 40s costumes by Seana Benz. Add John Stovicek’s soundscape, Liz McDonald’s props, and Jimmy Johansmeyer’s Carnegie Hall concert costumes to the mix, along with the scenic artistry of Claire Leitner and technical direction from Troy Cooper, and it’s a feast for the eyes and ears.
Besides giving audiences much-needed laughter, Souvenir is a marvelous ode to the idea of following your bliss. Ms. Jenkins loved the music of the great composers so much, she heard it as gloriously sung in her own mind. I am not a good singer, but I love to belt it out along with whatever CD is playing in my car. I know when I go off-key, but I really just want to enjoy myself. Shouldn’t we all do more of that?
So, treat yourself and go enjoy the whimsy that was Florence Foster Jenkins.
What, When, Where
Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. Directed by Tony Braithwaite. Through January 5, 2020, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler, PA. (215) 654-0200 or act2.org.
Act II Playhouse is a wheelchair-accessible venue and there is nearby parking, both in a lot and on-street.