LONG BEFORE American Idol-reject William Hung garnered his 15 minutes of fame for his awful renditions of pop songs, Florence Foster Jenkins was selling out Carnegie Hall despite her inability to hit even one note. Miss Jenkins’s life, however, has been preserved in Stephen Temperley’s play Souvenir (). Doubtful Mr. Hung will be able to say the same.
Souvenir is the story not just of Florence (Nancy Robinette), but also of Cosme McMoon (J. Fred Shiffman), a young musician who figured that no one would ever know that he was accompanying a tone-deaf socialite until a six-week gig turned into 12 years. Yet somewhere between the small recital in the Ritz and a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, Cosme and Florence found a rhythm that really resonated. Once word of Florence’s disastrous arias spread through 1930’s New York, she was a bona fide star. Sadly, she seemed to be the only one not in on the joke.
Robinette truly deserves credit for her portrayal of Florence, because it takes talent to belt out numbers that make nails on a chalkboard seem like church bells. Trotting out wearing different costumes in every scene, Robinette captures Florence’s utter joy and ignorance with great flair. Robinette’s finest moment is her rendition of ”Ave Maria,” which induces a physical reaction in the audience and borders on blasphemy.
Will & Grace fans will undoubtedly see a lot of Jack McFarland in Shiffman’s performance — with the added bonus of having actual talent to go along with the flamboyant persona. In fact, it’s the musical interludes that Shiffman performs with melodious perfection that provide a needed breather from the other torturous numbers in the show.
Souvenir‘s biggest weakest is the lack of conflict in the story — poorly sung songs are just not enough. The only tension is wondering if the glass bubble of ignorance that surrounds Florence is ever going to be shattered by one of her high notes. Fortunately, just when your eardrums can’t take it anymore, the actors save the performance by revealing what the show is really about: the odd yet indestructible bond formed between a rich socialite and a poor musician. It turns out to be a sweet love song of its own kind.
To July 1 at Studio’s Milton, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $39-$55. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.