Culture & Conversation

Plenty Of Off-Key Fun

It takes extraordinary courage to stage a new festival in Montreal. Stephan Pietrantoni has launched Montreal’s second English language musical theatre festival with Souvenir, a play about Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman who simply could not sing on key. The Centaur mounted Glorious some years ago about the same extraordinary person, but that play doesn’t compare to this show which is being held in the pleasantly intimate McCord Theatre space.

The space and the fine writing from the point of view of the accompanist, Cosme McMoon, makes this a much more satisfying and delightful piece of theatre. It is an often hilarious story narrated by Jenkins’ accompanist, played by Chris Barillaro, and it keeps the audience enthralled from the very first note.

Nothing quite prepares one for the appalling atonal singing of the lead character, but somehow, and this is what makes it work, the performance by Nadia Verrucci is so warm and innocent that one is quite taken by the story. Here is a woman who not only gives concerts of some of the great arias and lieder, but also produces a record called Murder of the high “C’s”.

The album sold like gelato in August. Historically she was admired by her musical colleagues and loved by an audience which had to stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths to keep from laughing out loud at her attempts to sing. Hers is self-deception carried to outlandish extremes but it is harmless and gentle and, in its own weird way, magnificent. Jenkins ignores criticism, writing it off as professional jealousy and she simply remains constant to her idea of being a great diva.

The costumes, for which Jenkins was deservedly known, are fabulously designed by Alexandra Knox. Her appearance for her finale at Carnegie Hall is apparently very like the original and just as hilarious. The only sour note in this production is the wig she wears throughout and which does not change with the decades or her age, and always looks like a poor sad Chassidic mop.

Barillaro is outstanding as Cosme, because he is an accomplished musician. When he plays out his conundrum about whether he ought to tell his patroness the truth about her voice, his performance is heartfelt, and utterly convincing.

Souvenirby Stephen Temperley and directed by Stephen Pietrantoni continues August 22, 27 at 8:00 p.m. at McCord Museum, 690 Sherbrooke St. W. The next show in the festival will be Slow Dance With A Hot Pick-Up on August 20, 29 also at the McCord Museum at 8:00 p.m. It is a new musical comedy/drama, book by John Pielmeier (author of Agnes of God) with music and lyrics by Matty Selman, about the dream that drives America. The musical direction is by Nick Burgess. The director is Corey Castle, a Montreal treasure mounting a Canadian premiere.

On the 30th, the festival will close with Les Misérables – A
at Salle du Gesù, 1200 Bleury at 7:00 p.m. The 1991 bilingual Montreal cast meets the recent Quebec City cast to share their experiences.

For more information, contact CETM at 514-504-9339. Or check out The Next New Wave site.

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