STORY WRITTEN BY BOB KEELER
You can just call Montgomery Theater’s next show “Souvenir.”
“The full title is ‘Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,’” April Woodall, who portrays Jenkins, said, “but that’s quite a mouthful and it doesn’t fit on the marquee.”
Having Jenkins name in the title is a good idea, because, even though she died in 1944, a lot of people still recognize Jenkins’ name, Woodall said.
“Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy and eccentric socialite who believed she was a great coloratura soprano when in fact, she was incapable of producing two consecutive notes in tune. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, her annual recitals in the ballroom of the Ritz Carlton hotel brought her extraordinary fame,” according to show information on Montgomery Theater’s web site.
Sonny Leo, who portrays Cosme McMoon, Jenkins’ accompanist, said he wouldn’t call himself a fan of Jenkins, but has become oddly admiring of her.
“She was hugely popular and it’s just fascinating,” Leo said.
“There obviously was something charismatic about her that keeps people coming back,” Woodall said. Repackaging in the 1970s of Jenkins’ recordings brought a resurgence of interest in her, Woodall said.
Although there are audio recordings of Jenkins, there is no known video, so it’s hard to say just what was so charismatic about her, Woodall said.
Jenkins hobnobbed with the royalty and celebrities of her day, Woodall said.
“She was a big part of New York City society. She had money. She came from money,” Tom Quinn, Montgomery Theater’s artistic director and the director of “Souvenir,” said. “She financed all her own concerts, but the concerts made money, which she donated to charity.”
The play opens with McMoon in 1964, then goes back to his time with Jenkins, Quinn said.
There’s not a lot known about McMoon other than that he was Jenkins’ accompanist, but he came to New York as a young man with plans to become a songwriter, Leo said.
McMoon “thought he was just getting into an easy paycheck for a couple weeks” when he began as Jenkins’ accompanist, but the two worked together for 12 years, Leo said.
In most cases, the shows to be performed are chosen, after which casting decisions are made, Quinn said, but in this case, it was the reverse.
Woodall suggested doing “Souvenir,” he said.
“Once I read it and researched it, I realized she would be brilliant in this role,” Quinn said.
Next, he talked to Leo.
“I approached Sonny and had them both agree to do it before it was chosen,” Quinn said.
The show fits in well with the Montgomery stage, Woodall said.
“The space is very intimate and this is a very intimate play,” she said.
When she appeared in “Everybody Loves Opal” at Montgomery, she noticed the same intimacy and connections, Woodall, who also was in “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” at Montgomery, said.
Leo has performed at Montgomery in “Gutenberg! The Musical!”
“Souvenir” is a play with music, but not a musical, Woodall said.
McMoon wrote and performed in a variety of genres and that’s reflected in the show’s music, she said.
“It’s got something for every musical taste,” Woodall said.
“I mistune myself,” she said in answer to a question of how she goes about singing badly for the show.
“If you sing badly, it will hurt you,” Woodall said, “so you have to sing badly well.”
Portraying Jenkins takes more than just missing the notes, Leo said.
“It’s not just singing off-key, but it’s the bad sense of timing,” he said.
“The play has a lot of comedy in it, but it has a lot of humanity in it,” Woodall said.
Audience members, she said, “will feel as though they had a full meal of theater.”