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Queen of the Camp
By Adrienne Kent
Jul 25, 2012 - 8:50:00 AM
Claire Morkin as Florence Foster Jenkins in "Souvenir".
The origins of the term camp – so bad it’s entertaining, if not good – may be lodged in some arcane recess of collective mythology, along with the works of Ed Wood and homicidal tomatoes. Surely the word did not in exist in 1868, when Florence Foster Jenkins’ first wail assaulted the air, but no one could be a stronger contender for the definition of its archetype and progenitor.
The astonishing career of this baffling lady is the subject of Souvenir: a Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, the second production by the professional Stage Door Theater Company at the newly-minted Studio Theatre at the Third Avenue Playhouse in downtown Sturgeon Bay. This musical comedy is narrated by her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, who served and protected her from 1932 to 1944.
Seamlessly directed by Robert Boles, the play transcends the tiny stage, which, though dominated by a baby grand, seems as large as the ethers from which Florence plucked her highly imaginative pitches and rhythms – wafting along with serene certainty but seldom encountering harmony or the fleeing shades of the great composers she annihilates.
In short, the woman is such an awesomely bad singer that she draws huge audiences to the Ritz-Carlton, where they are, in Cosme’s words, “convulsed and in tears,” until at last they are propelled to Carnegie Hall by popular demand.
The tiny opening-night audience in the 84-seat theatre was equally convulsed, shedding all the usual shyness of a small house as Florence began with a wavering “Caro Nome” and progressed through a series of great composers, wrestling each to submission with sublime and unnerving confidence, culminating in an audacious attack on Mozart’s Queen of the Night and a priceless parody of the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” – clad in homemade angel wings. The rest of her costumes, designed by Marty Todd, colorfully and whimsically represented the character and the period. The mounting hilarity became a force unto itself, as the audience, knowing that the excruciating sounds could not possibly worsen, knowing that somehow they would, writhed in anticipation of an orgy of deepening dissonance.
Only a fine singer could achieve such artful disharmony – usually hovering at least a quarter-tone sharp – and Claire Morkin is a fine singer. Her Florence is a sweet, endearing enigma, never quite resolving the implicit question posed by the playwright: how much did she know and when did she know it? Although in real life she was known to be airily dismissive of her critics, Ms. Morkin portrays her as adorably daffy, except for an intriguing tendency to disparage mezzo-sopranos, as if one had frightened her as a child. As she nears her Carnegie Hall debut at age 76, she observes that “the piano must be out of tune. That seems to be happening more and more.”
James Valcq as Cosme McMoon.
Still it’s never certain how much reality penetrates her gauzy consciousness, and Cosme can’t decide whether her unique mindset stems from “delusion or dementia.” In the end, after the Carnegie Hall debacle left the audience fainting and gasping, he gives her a loving, explicit, and devastating critique. This she does hear, and it’s worth noting that she died only a month later.
James Valcq’s Cosme is an impressive achievement. Challenging as it is for a singer/pianist/composer to do all of the above simultaneously and make it appear effortless, even for an artist of his ability, it is all the more difficult to play a complex jazz arrangement and an acting transition at the same time. He plays Cosme on a more realistic comic plane than Florence, but they dovetail in the end.
The play ends on a note of unexpected poignancy, and the same eyes that were crying with helpless laughter are streaming tears, as Florence and Cosme’s touching mutual respect leads to the deeply moving denouement of a thoroughly satisfying night at the theatre.
The production runs through August 12.
Adrienne Kent is a Joseph-Jefferson-Award-nominated actor/playwright with a Theatre degree from Lawrence University, where she studied acting and playwrighting with F. Theodore Cloak and classical voice with Mari Taniguchi. She began her acting career in Chicago, played Ruth in the National Touring Company of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and is a former Peninsula Player. For more than 30 years she has performed as an actor and chanteuse/pianist/composer from coast to coast. She played the Mother in Amahl and the Night Visitors at the Door County Auditorium, and has appeared in several TAP productions. She is currently writing her fourth musical, Anon Was a Woman.
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