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The Rep, two stars deliver the perfect pitch on Florence Foster Jenkins in off-key ‘Souvenir’


By JULIE MCHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

September 21, 2017


      

Jack Forbes Wilson and Marguerite Willbanks in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of “Souvenir.” It runs through Nov. 5 in the theater’s Stackner Cabaret.
Michael Brosilow


MILWAUKEE - We probably all delude ourselves at times. We might think we have more talent than we have, or less. It is hard to see ourselves objectively.

Some people, though, such as Florence Foster Jenkins, believed unswervingly in her operatic voice, despite the fact that anyone with half an ear believed otherwise. However, because of her strong belief and determination, plus her wealth and social prestige, she was given opportunities that were not commensurate with her native ability.

This is a true story about a woman who lived from 1868 to 1944, performing at various venues, including Carnegie Hall, in the ‘20s through the ‘40s. She was able to draw big crowds of fans, whether they came to make fun of her or enjoy her heady bravado. She made records, garnered large contributions to her favorite charities and apparently filled a unique niche in the world of operatic entertainment.

Her faithful accompanist and musical director, Cosme McMoon, took the job initially because he needed the money but, over time, he grew to admire the woman’s pluck if not her off-key notes. They formed a close, caring relationship. That in itself was interesting to watch.

Both actors/musicians - Marguerite Willbanks and the familiar Jack Forbes Wilson (always a delight) played their parts well.  We were intrigued with the characters, their unique musicianship, and the changes that evolved in their relationship. Her flamboyant costumes (Jason Orlenko) were also a focus of interest. One could never predict what she might walk out on stage wearing. Again, it demonstrated her complete confidence in her ability as well as her wardrobe choices.

As we relish Wilson’s melodic chords and arpeggios, we simultaneously wince at Willbanks’ vocal variations. (It can’t be easy for someone who has good pitch to imitate someone who doesn’t.) What seemed to be Jenkins’ appeal was the amazing fact that anyone could be this bad and not know it. People marveled at her tin ear and her unflagging desire to perform some of the great operatic works, none of which are easy for anyone to sing well. But apparently nothing could stop Jenkins.

Near the end of the play, so well-written by Stephen Temperley, Cosme gives us a very reflective tribute to Florence. He muses that perhaps she is not hearing herself as others are hearing her. Perhaps in her own mind, her performances are ideal, perfect renditions of classically beautiful compositions. During the show we hear her mangle Gounod’s “Ave Maria” and later we hear Willbanks as Jenkins  deliver a stunning rendition of the same piece, possibly the one that Florence Foster Jenkins was imagining. It was quite moving.

Under Laura Braza’s astute direction, we experience an intriguing show.
 

AT A GLANCE

“Souvenir”

The Milwaukee Rep play runs through Nov. 15 at the Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Call 414-224-9490 or visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com.