For a limited encore engagement, Riverside Center for the Performing Arts presents Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. Written by Stephen Temperley, Souvenir tells the riotous, ridiculous, and true (!) story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy NYC socialite who was known for her grandiose, delusional performance recitals. Patrick A’Hearn produces and directs this charming production, and while it’s a little different from the material we’re used to seeing at Riverside, it’s a very welcome detour. Jenkins’s audiences were known for demanding encores after her shows, and well over a decade later, we still want more of her!
The technical elements are simple but elegant. As there are only two characters and a straightforward plot, full bells-and-whistles aren’t needed. Really, the only thing truly needed for this show to be successful is a piano, but Scenic Coordinator Frank Foster and Set Dresser Destiny Fauntleroy add touches of class such as a curtained background, marble columns topped with elaborate floral arrangements, and red-velvet seats. Lighting Designer Weston Corey keeps the effects simple and elegant. Trust me when I say that Florence Foster Jenkins doesn’t need any extra flair; her presence itself is spectacle enough!
Her story, told through the narrative of her accompanist Cosmé McMoon (an excellent performance by Carson Eubank), is almost too wild to be believed. When he first hears her sing while auditioning to be her pianist, her unwieldy pitch startles him so much that he nearly falls off of his seat! Driven by proper etiquette (and a vital need for a steady paycheck), McMoon enables her delusions, biting back an insulted reaction when she happily exclaims, “Finally, to find an accompanist at the same level as me!”
Andrea Kahane is fantastic as Florence Foster Jenkins herself, charming her way into the hearts of everyone around her, including McMoon, who becomes more protective of her feelings as she becomes more and more well-known. He tries to discourage her from both performing in larger venues and recording her vocals, but her enthusiasm cannot be stifled. Says McMoon: “She believed, the way a child might believe. It was touching. And I thought it would be intolerable not to protect her. So, was that her vanity or mine?” McMoon struggles to maintain both of their reputations as her fame rises, and worries how she may be traumatized should her illusion ever be shattered. However, Florence marches on, insisting that “art cannot be ruled by caution.” She’s a terrible singer, it’s true, but she’s also blissfully, wonderfully free. Her unhindered zest is contagious, and she remains loved to this day because of it.
Before the show starts, Patrick A’Hearn tells the audience that throughout the performance are authentic recordings — which prove almost unbelievable on two accounts: one, that they aren’t Andrea Kahane’s recordings, as she matches Florence’s vocals pitch-by-awful-pitch. A professionally trained opera singer, Kahane uses incredible technique to mirror Florence (contrary to what we may believe, not just any singer can butcher “The Queen of the Night” so perfectly). It’s also difficult to believe upon hearing her original recordings that Florence really, truly didn’t grasp the fact that she was such an awful vocalist. She is so rooted in her certainty of her delusion that McMoon (and all of us, really) find ourselves awed by her, and with that comes respect and affection. In a poignant turn, McMoon fondly states that Florence “didn’t hear laughter. She heard cheers.” While the show itself is a comedy, it ends with all of the reverence and respect that Florence deserved, but didn’t always receive.
Riverside Center’s Souvenir is just what we need right now: short, simple, and sweet and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Turn off the news for an evening and grab some laughs while you can!
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes without an intermission.
Souvenir plays through March 6, 2022, at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts – 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA. For tickets ($55, plus applicable taxes, meal and show; $40, show only), call 540-370-4300 or purchase them online.
COVID Safety: Staff wears masks when working the floor (meal-service portion). Patrons are not required to be masked in the facility; but if patrons want to wear a mask, they are welcome to.