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Margo Kline: Ensemble Theatre Company’s ‘Souvenir’ Warms the Heart

The touching but funny two-character play runs through Feb. 28 at the Alhecama Theatre

Souvenir, a two-character play about the infamous Florence Foster Jenkins, whose bad singing enthralled audiences, is a genuine heart-warmer in the Ensemble Theatre Company’s current production.

A hit on Broadway, Souvenir proves touching as well as funny, with stars Neva Rae Powers and Edwin Cahill bringing polish and charm to their roles. Written by Stephen Temperley, Souvenir offers a glimpse of theatrical history from the 1930s and ‘40s. Director Michael Evan Haney has a sure hand with the play’s pacing and mood.

Jenkins was a New York socialite with lots of money, a perfectly dreadful voice and an indomitable will. She loved music and longed to share it with others, in a spirit of genuine artistic passion.

Powers is as wonderful as Jenkins, a slightly stout figure with porcelain skin, graying chignon and the habit of tossing French phrases into her conversation. Cahill is captivating as the gay, talented, equally music-loving Cosme McMoon, who became the singer’s accompanist — one might even say her accomplice. Cahill is also a superb pianist and singer; he winces at every note Jenkins sings.

The set is simple: an elegant New York hotel ballroom with art deco touches and a grand piano. The scenic and lighting design by Matthew Hollstegge and the costume design by Theresa Ham are evocative of the period, especially Ham’s over-the-top “dressy” clothes for Jenkins’ performances.

Powers, as Jenkins, sings operatic solos and art songs with a kind of hooting, honking soprano bray that is sure set some people’s teeth on edge. Certainly, Cahill as McMoon is visibly distraught every time the dear lady faces front and lets forth with some assault on a favorite soprano aria.

But there was more to Jenkins than the delusion that she could sing. She genuinely loved music and would not be swayed in her determination to share her passion with the world. It is instructive to watch Cahill gradually evolve from a young pianist in need of a job to a musical collaborator genuinely touched by this woman’s devotion to her art.

The play culminates in the recital Jenkins gave at Carnegie Hall in 1944, when she was 76 years old. Tickets for the concert sold out almost as soon as they went on sale, and the cracked coloratura voice of Jenkins rang out to 2,000 listeners. They were her ardent fans — not because of her talent, but because of her tenacity and determination.

Jenkins died a month after her triumph at Carnegie Hall. In a kind of coda, McMoon gives an affectionate summing up of her strange and wonderful journey to singing fame. There is also a nice little twist at the end of the play.

Souvenir will run through Feb. 28 at the Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St. Call 805.965.5400 for tickets, or click here to order online.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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