Beauty in the ear of the beholder

By Helen Watson White In Theatre

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Scene from Souvenir.

You welcome reviewing “a fantasia of the life of Florence Foster Jenkins”, since she’s world famous for doing something well. You’re also compromised, for the career at which Jenkins was so outrageously successful was in singing badly.

Some interesting background to this script given its first New Zealand showing at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre: writer Stephen Temperley earlier tried two other story forms – full-scale play and one-woman show – abandoning both. His third try explores the American singer’s project through the eyes of her accompanist, Cosme McMoon.

Temperley shapes a revealing contrast “between the way we see ourselves and the way the rest of the world sees us”. The story, he says, shows someone “who is nothing except self-doubting” meeting someone “with absolutely no self-doubt”.

McMoon opens, idling on a grand piano that is patent-leather black. Looking back years after Jenkins’ death, he remembers he was the “new kid in town” and she – bless her sensible shoes and lavender costume – gave him work. He knew at once she was never going to “scale the pinnacles of the soprano repertoire” as she imagined; but having carried her bags to base camp (and initially being unbothered by critics), he stayed on.

With the “extreme privilege” her later-life income afforded, Jenkins had the money for gown after fabulous gown, selling out charity recitals before hundreds of socialite fans, then aiming for the top – Carnegie Hall – and with the “pinnacles” in sight cutting her first record: a “souvenir” of her voice as it was before age and over-use tarnished her (self-perceived) “purity of tone”.

There are three stars in this performance. First, Michael Lee Porter as McMoon: as much in love with jazz as with the “high-brow” stuff his patron murders and resurrects nightly; torn between honesty and sympathy, and finally caught up in the drama of a success he would never otherwise have enjoyed. Second, Angela Johnson as Jenkins, going the extra mile with every sung and spoken line, living the moment and making us believe – amazingly – that moment will survive for posterity. Third, the set. Peter King’s circular Ritz Carlton ballroom, with chandelier, pillars, four tall windows and painted parquet floor, self-transforms into Carnegie Hall, windows-turned-mirrors reflecting the audience – cheering faces over bright footlights – in a miraculous quadrupling of an already magical space.

A winner for theatre, this one.

SOUVENIR, by Stephen Temperley, directed by Lara Macgregor, Fortune Theatre, Dunedin, until June 7.

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