Generation X’ers may think that they invented the Age of Irony. But Stephen Temperley’s fact-based Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins—produced locally by Utah Contemporary Theatre—provides a fascinating rejoinder.
Temperley’s play opens in 1964, as pianist Cosme McMoon (Darrin D. Doman) reflects on his collaborations decades earlier with Florence Foster Jenkins (Carol Keddington). A philanthropist heiress, Mrs. Jenkins had decided in 1932 that she was ready to share her soprano vocal talents with her social circle as a way to help raise money for her charities, with starving-artist Cosme under consideration to serve as her accompanist. The young piano player instantly concluded what audiences, record-buyers and indeed everyone except Mrs. Jenkins herself would subsequently realize: that not only was she not talented enough to hold recitals, but she appeared to be utterly tone-deaf.
The relationship between Cosme and Mrs. Jenkins provides an emotional anchor for what often verges on truth-is-stranger-than-fiction absurdist comedy. Keddington re-creates the performances with hilariously shrill perfection, while also conveying the oblivious conviction with which she throws herself into performances. And Doman does nice musician/singer/actor triple-threat work as a would-be composer whose frustrations evolve into a shifting sense of how to view Mrs. Jenkins’ “art.” As outrageously comic as the play’s second act may be—focusing on a 1944 Carnegie Hall performance involving multiple costume changes—it’s also a sweet and unironic reflection on the times when beauty may be in the ear of the beholder.
Souvenir @ Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. 300 South, 801-355-2787, through June 14. UtahContemporaryTheatre.org