The Rep’s 'Souvenir' hits all the right and 'wrong' notes in the tale of a real-life singing diva
October 3, 2014 12:00 AM
Jeff Howell and Jill Keating star in The Rep's "Souvenir."
By Bob Hoover / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For those born yesterday, there once was the novelty act Tiny Tim, an androgynous character with a clump of greasy hair and a ukulele who sang badly in a falsetto on late-night TV.
He was a put-on who acted as though he were sincere in his phony routine. The equally untalented Florence Foster Jenkins was not a phony; she truly believed that her screech-owl voice lovingly interpreted the music of the operatic masters, including “Mr. Mozart,” whose “Queen of the Night” aria she butchered on a regular basis.
“Souvenir,” now on stage at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, tells her curious, if not bizarre story, through the eyes of her regular piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon. (Yes, that’s his real name.) Superbly played by Jeff Howell, McMoon, who has taken the job because he’s broke, struggles futilely to prevent Jenkins from making a fool of herself, but it’s impossible.
Where: Point Park University’s The Rep Theater, Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Studio Theater.
When: Through Oct. 12. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m.
Tickets: $24; seniors, $13; students, $7. 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.
Jenkins sang many false notes, but there’s not one in Jill Keating’s performance as the dowager diva whose big bank account paid for the hundreds of recitals she held in New York starting before World War I and lasting until 1944. Ms. Keating, a Point Park grad, is so guileless and clueless that we can almost believe that Jenkins was a post-modern genius.
She wasn’t, of course, but she attracted a twisted fan base who came to sneer and snicker at her behind their hands while giving her standing ovations as McMoon plugged diligently away behind her. Although thoroughly awful, the Jenkins’ singing style is demanding, particularly the fingernails-on-the-blackboard sound of her high notes. Ms. Keating yowls away without pause in a performance that’s hilarious and pathetic at the same time.
From Tome Cousins’ direction to the series of Jenkins’ costumes designed by Cathleen Crocker-Perry, the Rep’s production sparkles with energy and polished performances by Ms. Keating and Mr. Howell. Jenkins conceived her own stage dress including an angel with wings and halo for “Ava Maria,” and Ms. Crocker-Perry’s version is a highlight of the show.
Jenkins’ career peaked Oct. 25, 1944, when at 76, she sold out Carnegie Hall in a benefit for the troops. Every song required its own costume, which she designed, including a snazzy military getup for her rendition of “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”
Ms. Keating and Mr. Howell create a genuine sense of friendship between performer and partner, giving “Souvenir” a deeper meaning beyond the comedy. It’s a satisfying way to send the Rep’s new season off to a rousing start.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Post-Gazette who occasionally reviews theater for the newspaper.
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