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'Souvenir' hits all the wrong notes for right reasons

| Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Jeff Swensen | For Point Park University
Jeff Howell and Jill Keating in “Souvenir” at The Rep.
Jeff Swensen | For Point Park University
Jeff Howell and Jill Keating in “Souvenir” at The Rep.

Leave your depth-finder at home when you go to see “Souvenir.”

There's no hidden political agenda, deep message or allegory to be discovered and dissected, says Tome Cousin, who is directing Stephen Temperley's play for The Rep.

“It's a charming little piece, just fluff,” Cousin says. “It's one of those little gems an audience would enjoy to see.”

Subtitled “A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” it's a memory play about a now-obscure singer who was wildly popular in the 1930s and early 1940s — for all the wrong reasons.

Her story is told through the eyes and ears of pianist Cosme McMoon, her tutor, accompanist and protector.

Jenkins was a wealthy New York socialite who thought of herself as a great soprano. She was one of those singers cursed — or blessed — with the inability to hear what her voice actually sounded like. In actuality, she was virtually incapable of singing two sequential notes with accuracy or recognizing the beat and tempo of a song.

“Nothing is more detrimental to good singing than this modern mania for accuracy,” she tells Cosme during their first meeting.

Those who think Temperley may be exaggerating for effect need only type Jenkins' name into YouTube to hear recordings of her repertoire.

Nevertheless, fans — mostly upper-class friends and acquaintances — packed her annual recitals to hear her flail away at arias such as Adele's “Laughing Song” from “Die Fledermaus” or Delibe's “Bell Song.”

They stifled their laughter behind programs and by stuffing handkerchiefs in their mouths. They fled the room when they could no longer contain their laughter.

Meanwhile, Jenkins forged ahead, convinced that her audience was overcome by the beauty of her performance.

“She was ardently, completely committed. She was singing one thing but hearing another ... There's a naivete and innocence about that person. One of her beauties was that she was completely innocent,” Cousin says.

Eventually, she achieved her life's dream when she sang the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart's “The Magic Flute” for a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall.

“Who sells out Carnegie Hall in two hours? That was no small feat for an unknown person,” Cousin says.

If there is a message at all, it's more of a question, Cousin says: “What is talent? Who defines that? It's a conversation about who makes the rules about what note is pleasant or not.”

Finding someone to play a terrible singer was initially a challenge, Cousin says. “But, once the audition notice went up, there was interest from actresses from all over the country.”

The role went to Jill Keating, an actress, part-time playwright and former principal character dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Her regional stage credits include “Born Yesterday” with Pittsburgh Public Theater and “In The Raw: (Revolution)” with Bricolage Productions.

“She does age (mid-60s to early 70s) throughout, but we are not going to have her being 76 years old,” Cousin says. “(The actors) are too close to the audience for us to use makeup.”

Accompanying Keating on stage — literally and figuratively — will be Jeff Howell, who plays Cosme.

In addition to being a veteran Pittsburgh performer, Howell is a classically trained pianist.

“He plays very well, which makes it easier because he also knows acting,” says Cousin, who worked with Howell last season when Cousin directed “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” for The Rep.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, acarter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.

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