PROVO — It has been awhile since I’ve reviewed a show and after a very hectic Saturday, I truly was not looking forward to a night at the Covey. I hadn’t heard of the production Souvenir: A Fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins by Stephen Temperley and really was unsure of what to expect.
When I arrived at the Covey and discovered it wasn’t even showing on the main stage but in the Brinton Black Box upstairs I was even more skeptical about what I was getting into. So, bad attitude intact, I ventured past the black curtain to a quaint set. Darkened lights, jazz music over head and a piano stage right. Now I was a little more intrigued. The show opens with Cosme McMoon (Ben Cummins) at the piano tinkering and playing what we later learn is one of his own pieces; Cosme is a struggling musician who takes us back to recount his interaction with the legendary Miss Florence Foster Jenkins (Barta Lee Heiner). He begins to tell us the (true) story of Miss Foster Jenkin’s unique career that unexpectedly brought her fame. Cosme had been in Miss Foster Jenkins employ for almost 12 years as her accompanist and we are introduced to her and her music in much the same way Cosme was: as she utters her first note you wonder if the joke is on you or on her.
The next two hours are filled with laughter and banter…and music? Cosme tells his version of her story with comical asides to give the audience a true picture of what her public thought of her, and ironically, despite all of the laughter and ridicule, Miss Foster Jenkins experienced a very successful musical career. Year after year she would perform to sold out crowds at the Ritz Carlton, record albums, and eventually perform in front of a sold out audience at Carnegie Hall. Amid all of the laughter and ridicule you can’t help but fall in love with this sweetly innocent character that is oblivious to how awful her singing voice is. In her world it’s all about the music and her love and passion for that music. And you truly begin to understand, just as she tells Cosme, “what really matters is the music you hear inside your head.” Even Cosme begins to question who gets to decide how music “should” sound like. Maybe her music was a little different, but maybe it was a good different. I even found myself wondering that too, cringing a little less with each note she sang off-key. Just like Cosme, as we get to know Miss Foster Jenkins, her lack of musical talent becomes less and less important. It’s her determination to live her dreams and be who she is that stays with you. Despite his 12-year battle to teach her the art of song, it is Cosme that learns the lesson in the end. As she quotes Brahms, “Though art must thrill the soul, it was intended to teach.”
Souvenir is appropriately set in the modest Britton Black Box at the Covey. The intimate setting allows for a more interactive encounter with the actors as well as making the audience an integral part of the production. Cummins does most of his narration directly to the audience and fills the rest of the show with comical asides to give the audience a clearer view of how Foster Jenkins is being received by the general public. When we aren’t playing the part of the audience to Cummins, we are acting the part of the audience to one of Foster Jenkins concerts. At one point we are even privy to an actual recording of Foster Jenkins performances, which adds a sense of realism to the story. One of the shows highlights is Heiner’s rendition of the Carnegie Hall Concert. This scene is complete with costume changes each one more ridiculous than the last; Foster Jenkins having carefully picked out each one.
Both Cummins and Heiner delivered strong performances. The two actors played well off each other and the occasional misstated line almost helped to keep the story feeling real and unforced. Heiner played a convincing Foster Jenkins, especially in the final scene when Jenkins has a moment of clarity and fears she is the laughing stock of her public. Heiner makes the character believable and was able to evoke emotion from the audience, even from this tough cookie. Cummins plays the irony of being a struggling artist whose catching tunes are heard by no one convincingly throughout the show. Cummins effectively shows how Cosme comes to admire this talentless singer with her countless fans. Heiner and Cummins were both equally brilliant in the pinnacle scene after listening to their first recording. I won’t spoil the story for readers, but in the end Foster Jenkins teaches Cosme that “it’s from our greatest challenges that we learn the most.”
So, despite my misgivings…I laughed and shed a tear or two, ashamedly so. Both actors played very well off each other and the characters were both believable and endearing; they both had excellent timing and the jokes were natural and unforced, and in the end I found my own “souvenir.” Souvenir definitely may be one of the best productions I have seen in the Provo area in quite some time.
|Eun Sook Kim|
|Berenice De La Rosa|
|Dale & Judy Rex|
|Experimental Theater Club|
|Jonathan J. Doll|
|Susan Koons Invited|
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