Amusing 'Souvenir' fills breach at Bay Theatre

2-character play looks at legendary tone-deaf diva and her pianist

May 14, 2010|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

Unable to raise the needed funds to present the announced premiere of D.L. Coburn's "Return to Bluefin," the Bay Theatre instead is presenting "Souvenir," an amusing play with a two-person cast and a piano that fits Bay's intimate space and restricted budget.

Steven Temperley's memory play debuted in New York in 2005 and chronicles the amazing heights scaled by supremely confident tone-deaf diva Florence Foster Jenkins, who rose to cult fame that culminated in a 1944 sold-out Carnegie Hall appearance at age 76.

Her accompanist for 12 years was Cosme McMoon, who recalls his experiences 20 years after Jenkins' death. Cosme reminisces about meeting wealthy socialite Florence at her Ritz-Carlton suite, where she was searching for a better pianist to broaden her repertoire for her charitable concerts attended by numerous society friends. Soon Cosme is engaged in this endeavor, plumbing the depths of Madame Flo's unique pipes.

Bay Theatre artistic directors and co-founders Janet Luby and Lucinda Merry-Browne traveled to New York to hire the two Equity actors — Ralph Petrarca, as Cosme McMoon, and Gael Schaefer as Florence Foster Jenkins. Merry-Browne does her usual first-rate directing job, investing the production with human warmth and seamless timing.

Schaefer's portrayal of Madame Flo creates a complex, charming, delusional woman who combines a childlike innocence and steely determination to produce the music she hears in her head. She conveys a mystifying self-confidence along with a fierce love of opera. Schaefer seems to channel Jenkins' voice in all its incomprehensible mystery. This is a feat that requires enough knowledge of singing to be consistently off-key.

Schaefer's Jenkins convinces us that she truly believes she is as talented as her contemporary prima donnas, including diva Rosa Ponselle. She also displays enough latent doubt to elicit the eventual protective support of her accompanist McMoon for this essentially sweet, perhaps vulnerable woman. Interestingly, Schaefer's Florence often reflects a distinctive whimsical charm that is reminiscent of director Merry-Browne's own.

A different set of acting challenges exist for Petrarca, who must combine a narrator's art with a comedian's timing while demonstrating a professional musician's piano skills. McMoon must carry much of the first act, communicating directly with the audience in an opening monologue that recalls his meeting Jenkins years earlier when he was an aspiring young composer in need of funds.

Petrarca's McMoon transitions from a middle-age bar pianist to a believable, brash 24-year-old musician who initially is appalled at Jenkins' screeching and astonished to realize that she is oblivious to her vocal shortcomings.

Throughout, Petrarca displays a sure touch at the piano, whether playing an infectious "Crazy Rhythm," which becomes a high point for both actors, or later a sublime "Adele's Laughing Song" from "Die Fledermaus" to accompany Madame Flo, who provides more laughs than composer Strauss could have envisioned when she rehearses the aria for one of her charitable concerts.

Adding to the overall excellence of this production are the many wonderful costumes befitting this unique diva designed by Luby and Joanne Gidos.

From the moment we hear Schaefer's would-be prima donna's first screech and witness her new accompanist's astonished reaction to her destruction of Gilda's "Caro Nome" from Verdi's "Rigoletto," we are laughing. We laugh at her amazing repetition of Madame Flo's magical "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

However, for this lifelong opera fan, the joke began to wear thin at Jenkins' delivery of Delibes' nearly unrecognizable "Bell Song" from "Lakme." Most of the audience continued to laugh ever more heartily.

Providing needed laughs to the audience is a worthy endeavor. And I cannot quarrel with the play's basic message of pursuing a dream to share one's love of music, and with the tender depiction of an unlikely friendship. The audience enjoyed this show and laughed consistently through the evening, and perhaps was inspired to contemplate its message afterwards.

The show plays through June 5 on weekends at Bay Theatre. To order tickets call 410-268-1333.

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