October 13, 2019
Never has off-key been so on-target
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
In 2018, Nocé gave Greater Des Moines audiences a sublime cabaret experience that deservedly garnered two Cloris Awards (Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Best Costume & Makeup Design). This is a rare opportunity to experience why such a show earned such high accolades. Gina Gedler and Max Wellman, with musical director Ben Hagen, reprise their teamwork to again share their two-person show, Souvenir. This is a captivating story, filled with heart, humor and plenty of music – surprising music, woven into a tale of two souls destined to connect through the love of music.
Souvenir is described as “a two-character play, with incidental music,” and was created by Stephen Temperley. Cosmé McMoon (Wellman) reminisces, while working in a 1960s Greenwich Village club, about the musical career of Florence Foster Jenkins (Gedler). Jenkins’ wealth and desire to express herself through her music and McMoon’s need to find income forged an unlikely relationship that spanned a dozen years. Both desired success, albeit from much different perspectives, creating cultish fame through Jenkins’ off-key recitals. The play culminates in a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall in 1944. Lavish costuming, the complexities of their evolving relationship and their touching attraction and support of each other, in the Nocé club setting, make this a captivating evening. The show’s title comes from Jenkins’ insisting that her recording of “Queen of the Night” (Mozart), when her voice is not as strong, will make “a lovely souvenir.”
Souvenir transforms the Nocé space into an immersive theatrical playground for Gedler and Wellman. As Cosmé, Wellman flexes his acting chops as he immerses himself into the role. His Cosmé brings frustration, empathy and a specially developed affection into the relationship, with a seasoned layering that allows his seldom-displayed acting chops get to share. Gedler’s Florence carries us on a journey that piques our compassion while also raising our ire at her seemingly oblivious understanding of her abilities. Sweeping into scenes and taking command without tipping into parody, Gedler brings a believability to her Florence that allows us to glimpse into her soul and her drive. Bedecked in some exquisite costuming and accoutrements (thanks to the talents of costume designer Mel Ziegenfuss), some of Gedler’s moments are pure eye candy. Florence spans the gamut of breathtaking in the majesty of her poise and confidence, often clothed in fashions that would make a fully-flared peacock seem pedestrian.
This show is a gentle, warm-hearted journey, from Cosmé’s opening in the future when he shares initial story-setting, somber reflections, to returning to that initial meeting some thirty plus years earlier with Florence. Gedler and Wellman are intuitively connected as the audience is drawn in from that first, awkward encounter which evolves into a special affection that transcends the recurring song, “Crazy Rhythm,” especially it’s lyrics, “when a high brow meets a low brow.” Gedler’s closing scene will leave no dry eye in the house as she touches everyone’s heart, while displaying the inner-soul of Florence. Reward yourself with this show – it is a gem with the staying power of a favorite memory, thanks to this duo’s vibrant talents at delivering captivating performances. As Florence shares, “If only we could live in the music forever.” This show will live in your heart forever.
The Culture Buzz theatre reviews are written by professional critics, to inform and enlighten. To receive weekly newsletters, email TheCultureBuzz@gmail.com or visit www.theculturebuzz.com. The Culture Buzz is a weekly broadcast/streaming arts & entertainment show, airing Wednesdays 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM Central Time on KFMG 98.9 FM and streaming at www.kfmg.org. http://culturebuzz.herokuapp.com/reviews/souvenir