Souvenir, Stephen Temperley’s memory play about the 12-year relationship between 1940s society warbler Florence Foster Jenkins (more on that warbling in a moment) and her stalwart piano accompanist Cosme McMoon, gets evergreener every year. Its Broadway run was brief — though not quite as brief as Jenkins’ real-life, one-night-only Carnegie Hall sellout — but Souvenir still thrives in the regions. Center City Theatre Works’ current effort marks the show’s third recent local production, and with good reason.
As scripted “reality” television and YouTube’s viral oddities grow increasingly tiresome — and their creators, in turn, grow more desperate for our attention — the naiveté, chutzpah, and tone-deaf squawking of 70-ish Jenkins (April Woodall) seems ever more endearing. Jenkins’ performances and reputation grew from small recitals for friends at the Ritz to several recordings, and that final concert, just a month before her death. If the title “outsider artist” existed at the time, she would have qualified; instead, one wag dubbed her “Queen of the Sliding Scale,” and she seemed to be the only one who wasn’t in on the joke.
Through McMoon’s (Jeffrey Lesser) evolving opinion of her, an opinion enmeshed with his own creative and personal frustrations, we come to understand the reasons he shields her from ridicule, allowing her to believe there’s no joke at all. Aside from being great sight gags, Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costumes — a robe that could double as a tapestry-weight curtain, a lavender dress festooned with ridiculous patches of silk magnolias — reinforce the idea of a matron who still sees herself as a maiden.
While the charm of Temperley’s script remains intact, this is a surface interpretation, and director Robert Smythe (yes, that’s Mum Puppettheatre’s former artistic director) misses some of its forward motion. Lesser’s McMoon remains remarkably untroubled throughout, an open book with an easy smile and none of the nuance that makes the character worth considering in his own right. Woodall’s Jenkins camps it up, trilling her R’s and punctuating her lines with sweeping arm flourishes, but never reveals the underlying vulnerability that might induce McMoon to see her as more than a paycheck.
Nonetheless, as the show’s promotional fliers maintain, it must be hard work for Woodall to studiously hit so many wrong notes for so long; when she finally lets loose with a moving “Ave Maria” — the one McMoon imagines Jenkins hears in her head — it’s worth the wait. This production may not be pitch-perfect, but neither was Jenkins, and it’s still worth the price of a ticket to hear her sing again.
Presented by Center City Theatre Works at the Skybox at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St.,through May 19. Tickets: $16-$20. 215-732-3797 or CenterCityTheatreWorks.org