Photos by Eric Chazankin
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
|Mary Gannon Graham
|From left: John Shillingham, Mary Gannon Graham
Wonderfully, Awfully Good
“O would some power the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us!”
—From the Robert Burns Poem “To a Louse”
Those with delicate ears and lovers of fine music be forewarned: there are many wince-inducing moments in “Souvenir”, but music is only the subtext of this magnificently comic and well-performed theatre piece. It takes the old “follow your passion, no matter what anyone says” advice and turns it right on its head. It also calls into question the very meaning of music itself, bringing to mind the cultural movement Dadaism, with its challenge of conventional art. “Souvenir” is exceptional, one of the smartest and funniest shows at 6th Street in a long, long time.
Conceived by contemporary playwright Stephen Temperley, “Souvenir” was first seen as a showcase production by an off-Broadway theatre company in 2004, with a Broadway opening in late 2005. It received nominations for Tony and Drama Desk Awards for best actress Judy Kaye. It has gone on to become one of the most-produced plays in the United States.
This true story follows the real-life ambitions of an early 20th Century socialite named Florence Foster Jenkins, who loved classical music, especially opera, with an undying love. She fancied herself a singer of operatic quality, no less than a Dramatic Coloratura Soprano. This type of natural voice is very rare, but “Flo” pressed on with delusional devotion, and soon was giving recitals in the Ritz ballroom in New York City for her loyal friends and club members who somehow couldn’t bring themselves to burst the dear lady’s bubble and tell her the grim truth: she was absolutely, frightfully awful. Insulated by her wealth, unable to see herself as she really was, she continued to perform, believing herself a true gift to the musical arts that just couldn’t be denied to the world. Next stop, and last: Carnegie Hall.
“Souvenir” shines the spotlight on a truly tour-de-force performance by Mary Gannon Graham as the pathologically tin-eared Flo. She plays her eccentric character with an endearing earnestness, steadfast in her belief that she is a true artist. Graham’s lovely soprano voice had to take a back seat to deliver Flo’s vocal atrocities, using special techniques and even enlisting the aid of a vocal coach to avoid damaging her splendid voice. John Shillington is equally spectacular as her accompanist and partner-in-musical-crime, Cosme McMoon, who serves as our storyteller. During his time onstage, besides driving the narrative forward, Shillington plays several early popular songs on the piano, singing with a fine, rich voice that offers sweet relief from Madame Flo’s discordant stylings. These two are the sole performers, both poignant and hysterically funny by turns. They are a theatrical match made in heaven, living their parts together onstage with convincing realism.
Fresh from his triumph with 6th Street’s glorious production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, director Michael Fontaine has given us, once again, a marvelous show, building the momentum for great things to come. His is a special talent, bringing together just the right cast and crew in a delightful collaboration of artistic endeavors. His staging is wonderful, his actors at the top of their game, with lighting, sound and costumes all transporting us away from the little Studio Theatre and into another world. Kudos is due to lighting designer April George, opera/voice coach Beth Freeman, sound designer Craig Miller, and costume designer Pam Enz. Together, they transformed the small stage and its performers to a variety of times and locales, ranging from a 1964 supper club, to the Ritz Carlton of the 1920s, to the Carnegie Hall of 1944.
“Souvenir” is sheer gratification, beautifully done, an intelligent, touchingly humorous biographical journey that ends with a standing ovation, the audience furiously clapping and cheering in a well-deserved tribute.
When: Now through May 27, 2012
8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Sundays
2:00 p.m. Saturday, May 26
Tickets: $15 to $25 (general seating)
Location: Studio Theatre at 6th Street Playhouse
52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA