Florence is No Nightingale in Well-Tuned Souvenir at
Hartford’s TheaterWorks

By Amy J. Barry

How does the world view us versus the way we view ourselves?

Far more than a one-gag comedy about a singer who couldn’t sing, “Souvenir” at Hartford TheaterWorks goes deeper, exploring this provocative question in a two-person performance that is as laugh out-loud funny as it is heartfelt, tender, and at times, terribly sad.

Written by Stephen Temperley and directed by Michael Evan Haney, Souvenir stars Neva Rae Powers as Florence Foster Jenkins—a real-life eccentric socialite who became a singing sensation in Manhattan in the early 20th-century because she couldn’t carry a tune, but had the chutzpah or complete lack of awareness—or a little bit of both—to get out on a stage and perform. This fascinated the public, particularly those who enjoy making laughing stocks out of others. 

Edwin Cahill plays Cosme McMoon, the accompanist Florence persuades to stay with her for a dozen years, to his own shock and amazement. Cahill plays both the narrator retelling the story 10 years after the diva’s death and the pianist in the twosome’s oddly developing relationship.

Powers is beautifully suited to the role of Florence Foster Jenkins. A professional singer and musician, in addition to being an actor, one can appreciate the challenge of singing so sorely off key and making such hideous sounds when you really sing like a bird—as the audience discovers in the play’s imaginative ending.

And, as Cosme says when he first hears her voice: “It takes a kind of talent to actually sing that off key.”

Compared to her vocalizations, Powers’ comic timing, expressions, and mannerisms that vary from childish to crazed to exuberantly happy are perfectly pitched throughout the show.

We all know incredibly talented people whose insecurities and self-doubt get in the way of their successes. On the flipside, we also know people who don’t seem to have an ounce of artistic ability, yet their unwavering faith in themselves and rugged self-promotion shoots them to the top of their game.

Florence Foster Jenkins is the latter, yet not for selfish reasons. She is generous to a fault and gives all the money she makes performing to her various pet charities.

The two actors mesh marvelously in their roles—Florence as both protégé and benefactor. By paying Cosme handsomely, she affords him the ability to continue composing and follow his dream of becoming a successful songwriter. Cahill is right on the mark as Cosme. We sympathize with his struggle between frustration and impatience with his employer and the compassion and concern that usually win out.

This is especially poignant following their performance at Carnegie Hall, where Jenkins is practically laughed off the stage. Temperley stays true to the true story. The real Jenkins died in 1944 just weeks after her Carnegie Hall debut and the end of the second act of Souvenir is quite literally her last act.

 For the first time, the woman who Cosme earlier describes as “so absolutely transparently sure of herself” breaks down in tears in the dressing room, imploring her friend to tell her the truth about her singing, asking him, “How could you have let me make such a food of myself?”

 Cosme doesn’t exactly lie to Jenkins but he also avoids the hard truth and we are left to wonder if it’s completely out of kindness toward the heartbroken woman or because he cannot bear for the illusion to end—for her innocence and unwavering optimism to vanish because then he can no longer continue to live with her in that sweetly childlike place that keeps the monotony of reality at bay.

 The set of Souvenir consists of a grand piano and a couple of upholstered chairs but in this case less is more—an elaborate set would distract from the play’s imaginative, magical quality—and is more than made-up for by the screamingly loud and colorful costumes donned by Jenkins, designed by Theresa Ham.

 Souvenir is a charming and playful production with a “score” that trust me, you WON’T be singing when you leave the theater.

 Performances run through May 23 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street in downtown Hartford. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or online www.theaterworkshartford.org.

 This review was published in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers and online Zip06.com, May 13, 2010.

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