Laughing with Florence Foster Jenkins at Stackner Cabaret
Florence Foster Jenkins had a “career comeback” of sorts in 2016, thanks to the successful movie of the same name with Meryl Streep in the title role. The 1940s New York socialite and amateur soprano truly believed she had an amazing opera voice while her audiences mocked her and laughed hysterically. The reason? She sang horribly off-key, dressed in outrageous (and garishly expensive) costumes and didn’t see and hear what the audiences did. Jenkins truly believed in herself and only heard a beautiful voice in her own head. As a result, Jenkins became a performing sensation with a recording contract and sold-out shows.
And now, Florence Foster Jenkins has been delightfully brought back to the stage in Souvenir, Stephen Temperley’s charming, hilarious and at times touching recreation of this one-of-a-kind entertainment phenomenon. The two-character production is told in flashbacks by Jenkins’ longtime devoted accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Jack Forbes Wilson), as he recalls how he met Jenkins (Marguerite Willbanks) and their work together amid Jenkins’ accidental, inadvertent rise to popularity.
“They never heard her sing,” recalls a wistful McMoon as he strums the piano keys, “but they knew enough to laugh.” But Jenkins herself didn’t hear that laughter. In fact, she was tone deaf, literally and in many ways emotionally. She only heard her own beautiful singing while performing challenging operatic works. And she had the perfect and very funny response to any vocal miscues: “A vocal artist must claim some latitude.” (Still LOLing over that line—among many funny quips in Temperley’s well-written book.)
The strength of Souvenir lies in the two performances. Best known for his spot-on portrayal of Liberace in the Stackner a few seasons back, Wilson is as deft with his piano playing as he is with his funny, (initially) shocked responses to Jenkins “singing.” Willbanks is simply perfection start-to-finish in this production. It is as much fun to watch the accomplished Willbanks perform Jenkins’ over the top movements along with the singing itself. An accomplished vocalist in her own right, Willbanks masters the difficult challenge to sing continuously off-key, sounding like Jenkins’ own original recordings.
Director Laura Braza directs with a balance of delicate intimacy timed with bombastic flourish, aided by Jason Orlenko’s cleverly designed period costumes that elicits laughs themselves. And, in these very challenging times we live in today, how wonderful it is to hear people laugh continuously—and with, not against—the performers onstage.
Through Nov. 5 at the Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets call 414-224-9490 or visit: milwaukeerep.com.