Souvenir | Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

theat_souvenir.jpgThe Repertory Theatre of St. Louis closes its Studio Theatre season with an engaging production of this fascinating tale.






I was curious as to whether there were any recordings readily available that showcased the unique and peculiar vocal "talents" of the late Florence Foster Jenkins. A trip to iTunes satisfied my curiosity immediately, with two collections of her work providing an immediate opportunity to sample her wares. I can honestly say that I wasn’t disappointed; Florence’s total disregard for any sense of pitch had me laughing from the moment she began warbling. But, there’s more to her story than meets the ear, and Stephen Temperley’s hilarious and moving play Souvenir offers up a warmly realized take on her amazing ascension. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis closes its Studio Theatre season with an engaging production of this fascinating tale.

Told from the point of view of reluctant accompanist Cosme McMoon, Souvenir covers the 12 years that they performed together, from 1932 until Jenkins’s untimely death in 1944. It’s an intriguing and amusing ride that finds him unsure as to whether Florence was delusional or insane; her singing is just that bad. Either way, she provides him with the chance to work on his compositional skills while earning a living as her pianist and arranger. The notoriety weighs on him, but the income pays the rent. Still, there’s no denying the fact that her unshakable belief in her ability to touch people (even if she was misinterpreting their stifled laughter as sobs), and her complete inability to sing on key, made her a compelling figure.

Edwin Cahill is excellent as Cosme, deftly pulling off a characterization which requires him to tickle the ivories with precision, while also communicating the broad range of emotions presented by the script. Cahill gets to sing a bit, as well, and nicely tackles snippets of standards like "One for My Baby," "Crazy Rhythm," "It All Depends on You" and "Violets for Her Furs," while he recalls various phases of his career accompanying Jenkins. His best moments come during the climax, as Jenkins announces her invitation to perform at Carnegie Hall. Cahill literally crawls under his piano in response to this "surprise."

Neva Rae Powers impresses mightily with her portrayal of this tone-deaf and charitable matron. It takes either an exceptional singer, or a thoroughly awful one, to pull off this kind of material. Powers reveals herself as the former when she gives voice to the sound that Florence must actually hear in her own head. Her tender take on "Ave Maria" is in direct contrast with the caterwauling and chicken squawking version she offers up during their initial encounter. And, Powers also gives Jenkins an unexpected degree of depth. She’s a completely oblivious riot early on, but when she finally begins to catch on to the true nature of her appeal, she proves she’s capable of touching your heart as well.

Michael Evan Haney directs with style and grace, and there’s a terrific chemistry going on between these actors that really sells the drama along with the humor. Brian Mehring’s set design provides a glossy cityscape backdrop that evokes the era. Betsy Krausnick and Tracy Christenson conjure up the crazy costumes that get nearly as many laughs as Florence’s singing does. John Wylie’s lighting heightens the drama in effective fashion. Rusty Wandall’s adaptation of Fitz Patton’s original sound design really shines during the Carnegie Hall sequence, adding a noticeable degree of tension to the scene as the crowd begins to get unruly.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has another winner with this ear-splittingly funny production. Stephen Temperley’s engaging new play, Souvenir, finds humor and heart in the most unlikely of places. | Chris Gibson


Souvenir runs through March 29

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