Was it willful ignorance or just simple madness that inspired Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy New York socialite and earnest classical music devotee, to sing in public even though she had no discernible musical talent? “Souvenir,” Barksdale Theatre's latest offering in its intimate space at Hanover Tavern, asks this question repeatedly as it traces Ms. Jenkins's improbable popularity through the 1930s and '40s, culminating in a bravura performance at Carnegie Hall at the close of the World War II.
The story is narrated by Jenkins' accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Jonathan Spivey), who describes audiences driven to fits of uncontrollable laughter by performances of Verdi and Mozart so deliriously bad they were hysterical. But while the painful mangling of classic melodies generates plenty of guffaws, there is more going on here. What keeps the audience hanging on is fear that the big-hearted diva wannabe — played to tuneless perfection by Debra Wagoner — will eventually realize that she is the joke. Finally, near the show's end, there is a crisis of confidence of sorts, but the quiet and careful way it is resolved is surprising and ultimately touching.
As amusing as Wagoner's wilting arias and unmelodious misfires are, a show essentially built around one joke can grow tiresome and “Souvenir” does seem too long. Two aspects of the production save it from this infirmity. One is Spivey's portrayal of McMoon, a talented pianist and composer who struggles to maintain his pride while tacitly supporting the repeated violence against music committed by Jenkins. While providing some fine playing and singing of his own, Spivey also makes McMoon believable and endearing. The other saving grace comes at the show's conclusion, a moment of transcendence where Wagoner gets to show her true colors.
It is hard for me to judge John Glenn's direction in its entirety due to an off-stage incident involving a patron falling and possibly injuring herself on the night I saw the show, which brought the action to a dead stop during the first act. While brief, the interruption seemed to throw the timing off in subsequent scenes. The energy and immediacy of live theater became detrimental on this night, though they also highlighted the tremendous poise and professionalism of the cast and crew as they soldiered on.
Certainly, Jenkins' effusive personality — particularly as captured by Wagoner — could overcome any such distraction. That personality is mirrored by the entertaining and extravagant costumes designed by Sue Griffin, from comical Mexican frocks to ethereal angel's wings. Joe Lavigne provides a functional scenic design that hides a New York skyline perhaps too inconspicuously behind a prominent columned wall.
In this era of “American Idol,” it's hard to imagine that a performer could carry on for decades the way Jenkins did without someone lobbing a withering, soul-shattering critique her way. Still, perhaps the ultimate lesson “Souvenir” offers is that a person's passion can provide joy even when it flies fervently — and painfully — in the face of convention.
“Souvenir” plays at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, through Nov. 1. Call 282-2620 or visit www.barksdalerichmond.org for tickets.