In their wry anecdotal volume "Skeletons From the Opera Closet," authors David L. Groover and Cecil C. Conner Jr. note the appellations that divas have inspired through the years. Moving past La Divina, La Stupenda, the Swedish Nightingale and such, Groover and Conner coin their own spot-on sobriquet: "La Incredible, Florence Foster Jenkins!"
Exactly, and similar awed incredulity screeches through "Souvenir." Stephen Temperley's award-winning 2005 fantasia about the Wilkes-Barre, Pa., matron who became a legend for sheer lack of vocal ability receives an agreeable staging at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
A well-heeled socialite whose charity concerts were a cult sensation from 1912 until her death in 1944, Jenkins foreshadowed such oddities as Mrs. Miller and William Hung. Possessed of a lifelong belief in her nonexistent gifts, this big-hearted dowager might seem a self-contained target for travesty. Yet Temperley's affectionate restraint generates as much empathy as helpless laughter. With gay accompanist Cosme McMoon's recollections giving the audience a sympathetic vantage point, "Souvenir" at base is a sweetly cracked paean to the valor of the deluded and those who protect them.
"Souvenir," which won the Drama Desk Award, offers choice roles for performers up to its challenges. Jenkins is inarguably the fulcrum, and Judy Kaye, a Tony nominee on Broadway and an Ovation winner for her 2006 Brentwood turn, was indelible in the part. It's doubly admirable then, that Linda Edwards makes Jenkins her own re-creation. Edwards' visual aspect is wholly apt, Margaret Dumont meets Anna Russell, and her vocal attack is properly shattering, a myna bird caught in a broken hurdy-gurdy.
Against this accomplished portrayal, Carl J. Danielsen scores as Cosme, a decidedly ambivalent foil. Less ornate than originator Donald Corren, the laconic Danielsen is a proficient pianist and affable actor, tickling in his contortions when asked for honest appraisal by "Madame Flo."
Under the spry direction of Jason Edwards, they achieve as much intimacy as the over-spacious venue permits. The designs are serviceable, Gary Wissmann's spare set keeping both principals in focus, though the costume parade based on Bridget Bartlett's original designs lacks the last degree of outrageousness.
This inadvertently reveals the central flaw in playwright Temperley's narrative, as the dual character study of Act 1 devolves into campy vaudeville by the Act 2 account of Jenkins' historic Carnegie Hall recital. Although the finale, where Cosme imagines what Jenkins must have heard in her head, yanks tears, it's because of the players, not the text. This shouldn't prevent enjoyment of "Souvenir" as a specialized diversion. As a play, it's more conveniently sentimental than truly incredible.
"Souvenir," La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 28. $40 to $48. (562) 944-9801. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
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