Souvenir

by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday November 28, 2009

Mark Anders and Neva Rae Powers in Souvenir.
Mark Anders and Neva Rae Powers in Souvenir.  

Northlight Theatre's pitch-perfect production of Stephen Temperley's play Souvenir is a sweet and touching fantasia on the life of the highly unique vocal artist Florence Foster Jenkins.

With her love of classical music unquestioned, her temper bright and driven, and her passion in sharing her voice with others unparalleled, Madame Flo, as she was referred to later in her career, was a rare breed. And thanks to willpower and means (she became a rather wealthy New York socialite in her adult years), her career culminated into a sold-out and highly-anticipated performance at Carnegie Hall.

The punchline here is that Jenkins (superbly played here with child-like exuberance by Neva Rae Powers) could not sing a note. Her voice resembled a series of cat calls, mixed with moans and screams. Her performances, which began as private recitals in the Ritz-Carlton for her sycophant society friends, later moved to more public, frequent and longer engagements - eventually leading to the celebrated Hall. Her fans and followers included Noël Coward, Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead.

And not once (well, maybe once, as Temperley insinuates near the end of the play), did Jenkins question her talent. In her mind, she had a rare gift that simply had to be shared with fellow music lovers. What she may have lacked in vocal accuracy she made up for in heart and passion. The musical notes, as Powers tells her visibly appalled accompanist (a winning Mark Anders), are merely "guideposts" to lead a true vocal artist, such as herself, in the right direction.

This two person play features spot on performances under Steve Scott's unencumbered direction. As Cosme McMoon, Anders plays the piano with finesse and excels at bringing us into his deep conflict in supporting Jenkins' demented perceptions. A talented composer in his own right, McMoon struggled for years to be discovered. His fears that he might be like Jenkins - a naïve laughing stock - are effectively addressed in Temperley's script. Powers brings a sunny sincerity to Madame Flo, easily casting her spell on McMoon as well as the audience.

Without giving away any spoilers, the final scene of this jewel box of a show is breathtaking and unexpected. Be prepared for spine tingling and a tear or two.

Souvenir plays through December 20, 2009 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Ill. For more information, visit www.northlight.org

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at chitheatreaddict.com