By Mary Boyle
I've seen and heard a number of brilliant musical performances at The Rep's Stackner Cabaret Theatre over the past several years, and I can confidently tell you that the singing by Marguerite Willbanks in Souvenir was the worst I've ever heard in any performance (at the Stackner, or otherwise). Of course, that was by design, as Ms Willbanks was playing the intriguing and eccentric Florence Foster Jenkins; a woman without a touch of musical ability, but who managed to pack Carnegie Hall, nonetheless.
The story of Florence Foster Jenkins was recently brought back into the limelight with last year's Oscar nominated film of the same name, starring Meryl Streep; however, the musical production, written by Stephen Temperley, opened off Broadway at the New York Theatre in 2004. In the musical, Ms Foster Jenkins' story is told by her empathetic accompanist, Cosme McMoon (played by Jack Forbes Wilson), who can't decide if his patroness's singing was folly or madness - but if it was folly, "her folly was so stupendous, you had to admire the scale - like the Chrysler Building."
Ms Foster Jenkins was born to a wealthy family in Pennsylvania in 1868, and was quite an accomplished pianist who dreamed of studying music abroad. When her father refused to indulge her, she eloped with a Doctor Jenkins in Philadelphia. She left the Doctor after only a year, but kept his name, and supported herself by giving piano lessons, eventually moving to New York. Her father's death left her independently wealthy, and her new status as a great patron of the arts gave her the ability to style herself as an accomplished singer to her fellow Manhattan socialites; the only trouble was, she couldn't actually sing.
One critic at the time said that Ms Foster Jenkins "could sing anything except notes;" another said that no singer "has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation." Despite her lack of ability, her private concerts generated a loyal, almost cult-like following, which included the likes of well-known musicians such as Cole Porter, who reportedly had to bang his cane into his foot in order not to laugh out loud when she sang, and yet he rarely missed one of her recitals.
Was she mad, or a musical genius? Was she aware that her singing was awful, or did she truly believe that she was a great soprano? Was it her wealth that brought her fans, or the absolute passion she had for music? Perhaps it was simply the sheer confidence she had in her own ability that attracted people to her? These unanswered questions are what makes the Florence Foster Jenkins story so compelling.
Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, Directed by Laura Braza, with Musical Direction by Jack Forbes Wilson, forces us to think of music in an entirely different way. Why do some notes make us cringe? Who made the rules about which note should follow what note, or what makes music good? I've been told many times that, in order to purposely sing very badly, a person must be able to sing very well, and Marguerite Willbanks certainly reinforces that statement at the end of her performance - but which takes more talent: singing in a way that others hear as beautiful, or singing the way that sounds beautiful to you?
Souvenir runs through November 5, 2017, in the Stackner Cabaret, located at 108 E. Wells Street in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com, by phone at (414) 224-9490, or in person at the Ticket Office (108 E. Wells Street).
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Milwaukee Rep is a nationally-recognized company that presents compelling dramas, powerful classics, award-winning contemporary works and full-scale musicals housed in its three unique performance venues: the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio, and Stackner Cabaret. The Rep also produces an annual production of A Christmas Carol, featuring a World Premiere of a new adaptation in 2016 at the historic Pabst Theater. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Managing Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee's rich diversity.