ACT's new play: caterwauling transformed into art

ACT's Souvenir, about a terrible singer who believed completely in her music, is a superb production. Like Florence Foster Jenkins herself, it reminds us that music can sweep an audience into hearing what it wants.
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Patti Cohenour as Florence Foster Jenkins (right) and Mark Anders in <i>Souvenir</i> at ACT Theatre. (Chris Bennion)

ACT's Souvenir, about a terrible singer who believed completely in her music, is a superb production. Like Florence Foster Jenkins herself, it reminds us that music can sweep an audience into hearing what it wants.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a terrible singer, but she proved conclusively that personality matters. As a young man coming to New York in 1957, I heard discussed her first and only Carnegie Hall recital in 1944 with wonderment. There was a recording, and when I listened to the caterwauling, I couldn't imagine how anyone in his or her right mind could have put up with her for a moment. It seemed like camp taken to dementia. Stephen Temperley's Souvenir, given a superb production by R. Hamilton Wright at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Seattle, explains exactly why no one ever forgot her. Like Flagstad or Ponselle or Callas, Foster Jenkins had such a strong belief in herself and in the music she was singing that she carried all before her. The great singers, of course, have a voice. She didn't. She couldn't really sing, but she could, as played brilliantly by Patti Cohenour, embody the spirit of the arias that she attempted. The two-character play details the 12-year relationship between Foster Jenkins and her accompanist, Mark Anders (Cosme McMoon), as recollected 20 years later by McMoon. A young pianist and composer struggling to make his way in 1932 at the depth of the Depression in New York, McMoon agreed to be accompanist at a recital at the Ritz Carlton Hotel for about 200 of Foster Jenkins' friends. The event was a triumph; the audience couldn't believe what they were hearing. These concerts, expanded to sell-out crowds of 500, went on for 12 years. Why did people come back? The play answers the question. Foster Jenkins knew the music; she heard it all in her head, and somehow she believed that her voice was making the sounds that she heard. Even when she was finally recorded, she still heard what she wanted to hear. The essence of her success was that her personality swept the audience into her belief. They came to laugh and be horrified, but they kept coming back because she offered a kind of intensity and love of music that only a great personality can give. How Cohenour, who is a good singer, can make the sounds that in my recollection duplicate the ghastly singing of Foster Jenkins is beyond me, but she does it. More importantly, her strong personality, her belief in herself sweeps one up into her orbit. She tells us that when she sings Donizetti's Lucia, she must add a slight Scottish burr to the Italian, a concept that no one has ever even imagined. Her desire to please "Mr. Mozart" with the Queen of the Night's "Die Hoelle Rache" and her wild approximation of the runs up to a high F have to be heard to be imagined. When confronted with a Carnegie Hall recital in a comment that helps explain her success, she says, "I wonder if this is what it feels to be nervous." In all her recitals at the Ritz, she performed with complete confidence. When she gets to Carnegie, she has a different costume for every aria, and Marcia Dixcy Jory outdid herself on her getups. I wonder if Foster Jenkins was so marvelously accoutered. In the Carnegie Hall concert my favorite was a song completely inconceivable today but very popular in World War II, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." Hearing Cohenour as Foster Jenkins "sing" it was like hearing Caruso sing "Over There" during World War I. Anders, as her accompanist McMoon, has a huge role in the play, maybe longer than Foster Jenkins'. McMoon did what he did originally for money, then gradually was completely seduced by her. One of the funniest moments is when he convinces her not to play Town Hall because he convinced her that it had bad acoustics, a wild lie about Lotte Lehmann's favorite New York recital place. He couldn't stand to expose her (and himself) to the whole music community and the critics. Anders, who plays and sings well, does some great Broadway songs, though the play bogs down a little with some of the music he plays. But his reflections of and reactions to Foster Jenkins make us understand her. He creates a completely believable accompanist and amanuensis. The design by Edie Whitsett is ideal: a piano, two different chairs, a skyline of New York out the windows of her Park Avenue apartment, and for Carnegie an appropriate suggestion of the stage. At the very end, McMoon wonders if she was crazy. In effect he's asking if all of us who are swept into another world by music are not equally crazy. She heard the music so strongly that nothing could shake her belief in her imagination. And she made her audiences experience her feelings. For this reason, anyone who loves opera or respects the power of the performer should not miss ACT's marvelous Souvenir.


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