'Souvenir' review: Dio opens season with fun romp about Florence Foster Jenkins
Courtesy of Michael Bessom Photography
An unlikely professional relationship is forged in the endearing comedy “Souvenir,” which just kicked off The Dio’s 11th season, as two musically inclined aficionados go on a journey of self-discovery during the 1920s New York music scene. The play chronicles the wild rise of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy NYC socialite who gained notoriety for her unique singing pipes. Told through the lens of her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, Stephen Temperly’s two hander puts all the pressure on the leads as they carry the show from start to finish. An interesting dynamic that, in the wrong hands, could lose momentum or overstay its welcome, but director Steve DeBruyne has assembled an ace cast in Sonja Marquis and Brian E. Buckner who never compromise the show’s sense of pace or comedic ingenuity.
And that comedic prowess becomes a driving force, because, in case you didn’t already know, Jenkins, contrary to what she would probably tell you, was not a gifted singer. In fact, she struggled with basic vocal skills, was always off pitch, and had a difficult time sustaining notes and phrases. The less said about her diction (especially as it pertained to foreign lyrics) the better. Still, there was something worth admiring about her unapologetic commitment to giving the masses what she assumed was “good music” and the allyship she forged with McMoon. That persistence would see her become a cult figure within the competitive music scene where she eventually counted fans among legends Cole Porter, Lily Pon, and even Sir Thomas Beecham. Not bad company to be associated with.
“Souvenir” takes theatergoers into the recording sessions and intense collaboration between McMoon and Jenkins, who plucked the struggling accompanist off the street with the opportunity of a lifetime (for better or worse). From the first meeting, it’s evident there’s something special between the two, a type of mutual respect and trust as the duo embark on a lucrative journey through various public recitals and record deals. In the roles, Buckner and Marquis are nothing short of exhilarating. Buckner brings a rag-tag Jerry Lewis-esq energy to his performance as the musical connoisseur who quickly realizes what type of bizarre situation he's found himself in. And then there’s Marquis, who shoulders a massive load playing Jenkins with both an earnest physicality and gob smacking vocal proficiency. I’m sure there are some out there who could suggest: “Singing badly is easy.” Absolutely not.
The amount of breath support and control one must possess to give the illusion of a poor singer is, I would argue, probably harder than hitting the literal musical notes. It’s obvious Marquis is a gifted and talented singer (the poignant closing of the show confirms that), but this would be a challenge for even the most accomplished musician, and the actress more than meets the demands and the moment of this production. And then some.
As always, the technical direction under Matt Tomich is innovative within the confines of The Dio’s intimate setting; Norma Polk is having a blast with the decadent costumes, including a Cleopatra inspired outfit Jenkins wore during her performance at Carnegie Hall, and DeBruyne mounts the show in a way where it feels like the audience has been given an exclusive behind-the-scenes sneak peek of these intriguing (and sometimes contentions) recording sessions. Theatergoers will be thrilled to know the chicken dinner served prior to the performance is delectable and the side of sweet potatoes was a welcome and savory addition.
In the end, this is a remarkable production that doesn’t rely on big set pieces or massive musical numbers, but the passion of two individuals who persevered through their own adversity. The odd couple pairing of Jenkins and McMoon still presents its fair share of questions today, like: How could this woman not have known she was a terrible singer? And how could he, a real artist, have let her believe she wasn’t? That’s the beauty of this relationship and how it was able to overcome insurmountable odds. This show says a lot about the human spirit without ever really saying it: friends can manifest in all shapes and sizes, but it’s the fondness that grows from the heart that can leave a lasting, meaningful impact.
The Dio’s production of SOUVENIR continues through February 25th. Tickets include dinner and a show and can be purchased here.