RuBarb Productions Presents SOUVENIR
A Unique Phenomenon; An Extraordinary Experience
Submitted by Douglas Hallman
Evie Koop Sawatzky as Florence Foster Jenkins, photo by Mandy Higgins (left); Ron de Jager as Cosme McMoon with Evie, photo by Douglas Hallman (right).
“Congratulations Evie! You pulled it off! They say one must have a great talent to do what you did. I believe this is true; and I was so pleased that, in a surprise twist in the plot, you were able to display your true gifts before the night was over. But for the show, your impersonation of American socialite and amateur operatic soprano Florence Foster Jenkins was truly masterful. Audience excitement and the enthusiastic standing ovation for you and your co-star indicate that others shared my convictions.”
For those who know it, the story is well-known. An aspiring New York pianist by the name of Cosmé McMoon (Ron de Jager) was in need of money. To alleviate his poverty, he accepted an invitation to accompany Mrs. J (Evie Koop Sawatzky) for her annual contribution to the musical association known as “The Verdi Club”. The fall program was to be held in the ball room of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. In the opening scene of the Mae Wilson production, the two took a run at a score.
In that moment, Cosmé and the audience alike were instantaneously shocked beyond measure. It turned out that Florence Foster Jenkins was incredibly challenged when it came to rhythm, pitch and tone. To put it bluntly, she had an excruciating voice and she was tone deaf. Jenkins was also aberrant when it came to pronunciation, in conversation and in song; especially in foreign languages.
Then there were the histrionics. She was inclined to imitate the images in the words she sang, and to dance during song introductions and between the verses. For the prelude to the Spanish song Clavelitos, she ‘performed’ a Spanish step in the style of a fandango. The icing on the cake was the constant costume changes, always with the intention of reflecting what she sang. Her favorite outfit was the angel’s wings she dawned for her rendition of Ave Maria.
But this is the surprising thing. The Mae Wilson audience was caught up in the manner of Jenkin’s 1940 audiences. They could not get enough. They had to see what she would do next. In her day, Jenkins became the most talked about act in the city. When she was invited to sing at Carnegie Hall in October of 1944, it was a full house, and thousands had to be turned away.
The 2005 Stephen Temperley script lets us know how Mrs. J was able to acknowledge audience reactions as encouragement. It seems the people who heard her went to great lengths to spare the singer’s feelings. When there was an excruciating discord and the consequent uncontrollable wave of merriment, the thundering applause served to cover the laughter. It was an unwritten rule that in the event of an uncontrollable reaction by one person here or another there, it was taken outside.
Evie Koop Sawatzky and Ron de Jager have brought their “A” game to Temperley’s striking and tender play. Koop Sawatzky also directed the play with Assistant Director Andre Harden. Whether you are familiar with the Jenkins story or not, the Mae Wilson performance invites you to witness a phenomenon, an experience that is truly “one of a kind”. It is a “feel with” rather than a “laugh at” ambiance with actors and audience as quintessentially themselves.