Saturday, March 18, 2017

Did The Devil Make Her Do It? A Florence Foster Jenkins Souvenir

Image result for "Florence Foster Jenkins"+"Asheville"

NC Stage Company
Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
NC Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, off Walnut St., downtown Asheville

Through April 2, 2017

The actress Callan White hits all the right notes as Florence Foster Jenkins, the amateur operatic diva who became a celebrity for hitting all the wrong notes.

A sweet tenderness infuses her portrayal of the woman so eager to be an artist, so oblivious to her lack of talent and technique, and so wealthy that she could display her off-key, off-pitch, off-rhythm singing in private concerts from 1912 to the early '40s. She captivated New York's high society and musical elite. Audiences came to laugh, but many went away admiring "Lady Florence," as she liked to be called, for her unsinkable spirit. Caruso and Cole Porter were fans.

Laughter, followed by sympathy for Jenkins, and admiration for White, will likely also be your reaction to Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Temperley's two-character, squeezed-down biodrama now at NC Stage Company in downtown Asheville through April 2.

The playwright skims so lightly over Jenkins's story that you may need to visit the theatre's helpful website to pluck out more of what it rightly calls her "history and mystery."

Was Jenkins deluded, perhaps clinically so? Was she a monumental innocent, so lost in her love of music and performing, that she was unaware of what a laughingstock she was? Was she more self-aware than she let on?

Give credit to White's absorbing performance, more than the script, for raising some of these possibilities. Neither she nor the playwright fully answer the question his narrator, the singer's accompanist, asks us at the beginning: "Why did she do it?"

There are two moments that may come close. The first happens when the accompanist, Cosme McMoon (yes, that was the name the real person used), loses patience and shouts, "You silly woman!"   Jenkins appears to drop her mask of complete self-confidence. Many in the audience gasp audibly, as she retreats to a chair.

"I am not a silly woman," she says after a painful silence.

When I saw the performance preview night, the actress was seated turned away from me at  the stage left corner of the theatre's small, three-sided thrust. So I could not read her expression. But her still-straight back spoke volumes.

Maybe the director, Charlie Flynn-McIver, could let Callan cross stage right briefly to a side of the platform he never uses. A third of his audience should not miss her what her eyes have to say.

As White settles into the role, this skillful actress may discover more ways for the mask to drop. In an already deeply felt performance, she may uncover more nuances and some answers to that "Why did she do it?"

Flynn-McIver has White play Jenkins more gently than Judy Kaye apparently played her on Broadway. Kaye went for a full-out Imogene-Coca-opera-parody diva.  Flynn-McIver goes for giggles over guffaws, pathos over parody. It's not the obvious choice, and it calls for a deeper psychological probe than the playwright may have intended.

The character of Cosme McMoon, played by Jono Mainelli, is Temperley's narrator for the events. He first appears seated at a grand piano, playing and singing popular songs of the day, like a down-on-his-luck bar pianist in a really bad suit. "I don't take requests until I know you better," he says.

The playwright tells us more about Cosme than we probably want to know. He lets the musician drop nuggets about his own life—a roommate-partner who didn't share his views on monogamy, his frustrated efforts to make a career of his own as a composer of art songs.   He's just not as interesting  as Jenkins.

The pianist, at least as Mainelli plays him, is little more than a device connecting one episode to another. While the popular songs he sings are moody and ingratiating, they're fillers to give White time to change her costumes. Mainelli, a New York-based pianist and music director, doesn't hint at Cosme's soul the way White does at Jenkins's.

Cosme's bad suit, with its too-long coat, is one of the costume designer Anna Hazen's witty subtleties. She manages to suggest Jenkins's haute couture on a small theatre's budget by overlaying luxurious-looking gossamer over basic gowns. Surprisingly, she cuts a corner by letting Jenkins reappear in her first dress, when the narrator clearly tells us it's twelve years later.

Hazen does pull all out the stops in the second act, as Jenkins makes her debut at Carnegie Hall. It turns out to be her final concert. 

The singer appears in a rapid succession of increasingly outrageous costumes, culminating in . . .well, I won't spoil the surprise, one of the biggest laughs of the show. It's a tour de force for the actress, the designer, and especially for the quick-change artist offstage,  Caleb Kirkland, who is her dresser.

Equally canny on a small budget is the scenic designer, Julie Ross. She backs the stage with a simple architectural facade containing arches on either side. She paints it a subdued gray with a faint stenciled pattern. This less-is-more approach is more successful than the over-stuffed garden with garish green AstroTurf used in the theatre's previous production, Jeeves in Bloom. Ross may have even recycled the architecture from Jeeves. If so, she did the set and the theatre's budget a favor by calming it down.

The best answer to "Why did she do it?" comes at the end. It's also Mainelli's best moment, and he makes us see Jenkins through Cosme's eyes.

This finale is another surprise that shouldn't be spoiled. Callan White takes a theatrical risk here, and she takes it fearlessly. A sentimental ending, perhaps, but a thoroughly satisfying one.

Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.  It is profusely illustrated with almost 100 renderings, models, and production photographs and includes a complete design chronology, as well as a listing of Mr. Loquasto's awards and honors.  Published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT).

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