March 08, 2009

The Worst Thing You'll Hear All Night


Florence Foster Jenkins insists there's nothing wrong with her inner ear. Blessed with perfect pitch, she says. One of the very lucky few, she says. Well if that's the case, then musicians, critics, and historians agree: there's got to be something wrong with her head. The woman cannot sing, and she insists on giving concert after concert of the most difficult pieces in the classical repertoire. It's an outrage, an embarrassment, and it's painfully funny. So painful, in fact, that Cosme has to coach you on how to endure the performance. How to stifle the laugh. How to come up for air. And how to cut-and-run if you just can't make it.

Stephen Temperly's “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” is the sort of show that could easily devolve into caricatured farce. How can you not play it up when singing off key? Or not writhe in anguish as you aid and abet the shenanigans of a tone deaf diva? That the actors in Centre Stage's production remain fully human and dead-level funny is a wonder worth seeing. While Florence (Mimi Wyche) and Cosme (Mark Nadler) can rake in the laughs (and do!), neither of them is willing to compromise when it comes to what's in the heart. And what's in the heart is far more muddled that our neat distinctions of “good art” and “bad art.”

Wyche's Florence is at once over-the-top and subtle. She's real. She's got all your hopes bundled up with even greater limitations. She's vulnerable, but she's sassy. She's coy. She's fighting back grief. She's screeching her way to fame. And Wyche makes her terribly, terribly lovable.

Maybe the only thing really wrong with “Madame J's” head is that she isn't afraid. She's conquered the doubt that cripples so many of us (including Cosme McMoon, her angst-ridden accompanist). “Art cannot be ruled by caution,” she lectures him. “You say the microphone will diminish [art], but so will doubt.”

It's one of the many ironic lectures Florence bestows on the truly-gifted Cosme, who doesn't perform because he's terrified of what people think. Cosme takes it all in a fairly reasonable stride, and Nadler's performance, both on the piano and off, shifts effortlessly between incredulity and compassion, wonder and rage. When the stakes get too high and Cosme just can't take it any more, the musical explosion between the two performers is painful enough to undercut your laughter and make you cry. This scene, and the tender wooing that follows is one of the most delicate and fresh scenes of the season, more than earning the duo a spontaneous ovation.

But that's not the end of the show. That's just the middle. There's still a “nightmare” of a performance to be gotten through, and after this recent bout of empathy, you're bound to be laughing all the harder, especially when you don't really want to laugh.

Temperly is a master playwright here, contorting your emotions more than Florence ever tormented a song—making you guffaw the loudest when all human decency says you should be showing the greatest pity, when people are hurting and broken. Flo's singing aside, Temperly lets you listen to the most painful sound you'll hear all night—your own voice, laughing uncontrollably at someone else's anguish. And when the “silly woman” is finally silenced (because of you!), the shame is almost too much to bear. Ave Maria, Florence Foster Jenkins never caved in to that shame, and her spirit, even at the very last, will help you rise above it, too.

Stephen Temperly's “A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins. Directed by Mark Waldrop. With Mimi Wyche (Florence Foster Jenkins) and Mark Nadler (Cosme McMoon).

Musical Director, Tom Helm; Scenic Designer, Michael Allen; Costume Designer Matthew Hemesath; Sound Designer, David Budries. Presented by Centre Stage, 501 River Street, Greenville, SC (864) 233-6733. Through March 21. Tickets $25, with discounts for seniors and students.

Posted by stephanie at March 8, 2009 04:15 PM | TrackBack