Subtitled “A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Souvenir” inherently fascinates as it warmly if hurriedly chronicles the childlike naïveté, unyielding determination and non-existent talent of its extremely unique leading lady. Jenkins, a wealthy, musically inept socialite, firmly believed she was a remarkable vocalist even though she possessed an embarrassingly awful sound. Mistaking laughs for cheers, she assumed all was well as her popular charity recitals inside the Ritz Carlton ballroom left audiences baffled, delighted and hungry for more. Jenkins’ rise as a phenomenon ultimately led to her 1944 sellout concert at Carnegie Hall, which solidified her spot in the annals of pop culture and particularly left Marlene Dietrich in hysterics.
Personality and psychology factor into the allure of this intimate tale, but musicianship is the key ingredient that binds every element. Temperley smoothly frames the action in flashback from the vantage point of Jenkins’ devoted pianist Cosmé McMoon, a fledgling composer. Struggling to pay his rent, Cosmé agreed to assist and instruct, but remained perplexed and wary of his employer’s mystique. At one point, he admits Jenkins’ folly “was so stupendous you had to admire its scale.” Still, how far was too far? He eventually accepted the reality that she would never be the marvel imagined in her head, but delicate disagreements surfaced regarding their shared love of music. In fact, Cosmé believed notes were “absolute” while Jenkins felt they were merely “guideposts.” In theory, Cosmé is correct, but Jenkins’ view is valid, particularly by today’s debatable standards as pop singers such as Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Jennifer Hudson relish the overuse of melisma, a melodic embellishment in which a series of notes are sung on one syllable.
Under Saul Caplan’s humorous yet tender direction, Reneé Franck-Reed and Charles Larkowski wonderfully and affectionately deliver performances so instinctive you’d think Temperley wrote the play specifically for them. Appealingly costumed by Robin Farinet, Franck-Reed, who has notably appeared with the Dayton Opera, Human Race Theatre Company and Cincinnati’s New Stage Collective, brilliantly tackles the crucial believability of singing off-key with terrible pitch and no sense of rhythm. Hearing a fine soprano like Franck-Reed seamlessly destroy classics by Mozart and Verdi is a thrilling hoot. Still, the chatty charm, oddball delusion and striking innocence that kept Jenkins endearing as a consummate non-professional is not neglected in her marvelously grounded performance, which grows heartbreaking when Jenkins finally grasps the truth at Carnegie Hall. Larkowski, in a very engaging Guild debut, blends perfectly with Franck-Reed. In addition to providing terrific accompaniment and sincere narration, he sharply conveys Cosmé’s deep insecurities while fulfilling his pivotal role as Jenkins’ primary motivator, comforter and protector.
“To abuse my voice would be unthinkable,” Jenkins proudly declares in one of many witty exchanges. Thanks to a beautifully crafted finale that reveals the music inside her mind and the dynamic duo of Franck-Reed and Larkowski, it is certainly unthinkable for you to miss this absolutely captivating production.
Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins will continue through Sept. 25 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Act One: 55 minutes; Act Two: 40 minutes. Tickets are $11-$18. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org