Encore Michigan

Review: Dio’s ‘Souvenir’ is poignant story of musical muse Florence Foster Jenkins

Review February 08, 2024 David Kiley

PINCKNEY, MI–Most of us meet characters in our lives that are truly unforgettable. That was Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite in the 1920s, 30s and early 40s who had a deep passion for music and deep pockets to finance her passion.

The only problem was the thing that made her so unforgettable—her complete lack of pitch or God-given talent, and the inability to hear how truly cacophonous her singing was.

The current production of Souvenir at The Dio Dining & Entertainment here, running through February 25th, tells Jenkins’ (played by Sonja Marquis) story in retrospect by her long-time piano accompanist Cosmé McMoon, played by Brian E. Buckner.

The story is far more than a recap of an eccentric. Directed by Steve DeBruyne, Souvenir intertwines music, comedy, and poignant storytelling, with its heartfelt exploration of friendship, talent, and the pursuit of dreams. The performances of Marquis and Buckner are as unforgettable as Florence Foster Jenkins herself.

The play unfolds as Jenkins invites the audience into her glamorous yet deluded world. Through her interactions with McMoon, her long-suffering accompanist played with equal parts exasperation and affection, we witness the unraveling of her musical aspirations and the blossoming of an unlikely friendship.

One of the play’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to seamlessly blend moments of uproarious laughter with genuine moments of empathy and introspection. As Jenkins boldly takes the stage, her off-key renditions of beloved arias elicit fits of laughter from the audience, yet beneath the surface, there’s a profound message about resilience and the courage to pursue one’s passions despite societal norms. Indeed, McMoon, who aspires for greater things and fame of his own, rhetorically asks whether Jenkins’ vocals are as bad as we think? Should we rethink what vocal quality is when it is girded by such passion.

The chemistry between the two leads is palpable, their dynamic evolving from initial bewilderment and frustration to a genuine bond rooted in mutual respect and understanding. Marquis delivers a tour-de-force performance, capturing Jenkins’ larger-than-life persona while also conveying the vulnerability and loneliness that lurk beneath the facade. Likewise, Buckner shines in his role, infusing McMoon with a blend of exasperation, amusement, and ultimately, profound admiration for Jenkins’ unwavering spirit.

Marquis has a tough job–singing badly on purpose, while still making it entertaining, and not grating. Buckner, who is also music director for the show, expertly prepared Marquis for the challenging role.

Part of Jenkins’ charm is her love of extravagant performance costumes, created by Norma Polk. The set design, by Matthew Tomich, is simple but, perfectly executed to be versatile for every aspect of the storytelling—serving as both Jenkins salon, McMoon’s flat and the Carnegie Hall stage.

Though Jenkins is at the center of the story, Souvenier is very much about McMoon, and we see her passion and innocence through his eyes. An accomplished pianist and songwriter, we see him at first as the skeptical, even horrified musician, bristling over her terrible vocals and resigned to do whatever it takes for the paycheck. Then, over the years, we absorb the love and admiration he develops. It would be tempted to view Jenkins as merely a woman suffering from arrested development—never progressing beyond the showboating, annoying 10-year old girl fond of singing for her parents’ friends, powering through awkward looks and stares at wristwatches. McMoon sees her heart driving her musical expression.

At its core, Souvenir is a celebration of the human spirit and the power of music to transcend limitations. As Jenkins boldly declares, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” In a society that often values perfection above all else, this play serves as a poignant reminder that true beauty lies not in flawless execution, but in the courage to embrace one’s unique talents and express oneself authentically.

A lovely, captivating story performed by two compelling actors, go to www.diotheatre.com for ticket and showtime information.

Week of 6/17/2024

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