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Center Stage: Tower of treats at BIG Arts

By Staff | Mar 24, 2011

Last week we were gifted with a tower of theater treats at BIG Arts. First, the On Stage production of “Souvenir,” Stephen Temperley’s delightful,. humorously sweet love letter to Florence Foster Jenkins — the legendary lady who made a hugely successful career from singing badly. The playwright is spot-on in creating a hilariously funny, yet tender memory play honoring the dowager who bellowed mighty squeals from a big heart. And, even though the BIG Arts audience was ready for it — the first squawk out of Susan Swaney’s mouth as Jenkins — it still managed to be both a doozy and a shocker. But for Swaney to make anything approaching a pretty sound would have been blasphemy to the Jenkins cultists who continue to worship at the shrine and memory of the real woman. This gosh-awful bellowing was enough for the critics to dub Jenkins as the “dire diva of din.” Nevertheless. this society woman enjoyed a remarkably successful concert career including a totally sold out, triumphant appearance at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.

The two -person play is told in the recollections of her tart, sentimentalist piano accompanist, the implausibly named Cosme McMoon. We find him currently playing in a piano bar as the plot begins in 1964, swiftly returning to 1932 through the ’40s, to tell the tale. McMoon is an aging, possibly gay songwriter, segueing between a Greenwich Village supper club and Mrs. Jenkins’ Park Avenue apartment where he had his first interview as her potential accompanist/vocal coach.

Cosme needed a steady source of income, although after hearing her amazing voice, he was so shocked and put off that he “popped off the piano bench like a bullet shot from a gun.” Nevertheless his financial straits provided the necessary urge, and he agrees to work with her. During the next sixteen years a firm friendship develops between the two and, although her unusual voice never improved, McMoon found her unstoppable self-confidence amazing enough to wonder if true art might not be in that inner voice heard by tone-deaf people like Jenkins. The kicker is that, in due time, McMoon found himself unable to appreciate a truly fine voice, leading him to declare that other opera divas had something more like passion missing from their performances.

This is where playwright Templey structures his script so beautifully that we, the audience, can easily understand how we handle and even convince ourselves that all is well, by simply buying into self-delusional blindness. In spite of this delusional thinking there has always been speculation as to whether Jenkins was really convinced that people pulled out their handkerchiefs because they were so moved by her singing, or that she realized that they were really stuffing them into their mouths to control their laughter… and ye,t never really caring because she loved entertaining them — becoming a sort of ahead-of-her-time, campy diva having a blast at all costs.

The in real life, rich voiced Susan Swaney was the consummate actress murdering the music of Mozart, Verdi, Gounod and Brahms. Swaney manages to sing badly really well and with much comic glee, all the while investing this screeching, self-proclaimed coloratura with a delightfully bracing humanity and spirit.

Seasoned actor/pianist arranger/singer/theater-teaching professor Ray Fellman’s McMoon beautifully doubled as narrator with such aplomb and stagecraft that the play was perfectly safe from coming off as a one-joke caricature. With Fellman’s performance the play was a full-bodied vehicle for two gifted performers. His tactful efforts to dissuade the lady from certain challenging undertakings and her unshakable self-confidence gave this play some priceless comic two-handed scenes. Fellman’s club style singing during his flashbacks on his 16 years with Jenkins was musically delightful, becoming the perfect foil for Swaney’s deliciously, gawd-awful, hilarious, Jenkinesque singing.

What can I say? you had to be there to experience this comically uplifting charming performance of BIG Arts fine presentation of “Souvenir.”

The abundance of riches continued when BIG Arts presented the annual Writers Read on Thursday, March 10th. There were 19 writers reading some truly amazing writings. Duke Baron kicked off the proceedings with his witty telling of a true story titled “Wedding Planner” in which the mispronunciation of the couple’s newly purchased Swedish Volvo got unexpected laughs as the host bids the couple farewell, shouting for them to have fun and drive safely in their new “Vulva.” …Oops.

Tanya Hochschild’s “Letter to Heloise” was a bright and breezy quest of where do all the single socks go in the weekly laundry? Sandy Gadomski took a coyote’s dream walk in “The Trail.” This poignant poem was followed by another hilarious ‘oops’ occurring when Vivian Pyke’s grandson accidentally (on purpose) pulled the red lever of the fire alarm during “The First Day of School.” Joyce Rand enthralled with the true, yet tender telling of a quiet man going to a quiet death in “Virginia’s Ballad.”

Don Brown’s surprising “Twig” has a tattooed story teller weaving tall tales about Alaska. Brown’s colorful second poem “Cardinal” welcomed back another snow-bird to our Island.

Pucker up and practice was Jane Hogg’s clever ode to the “First Kiss.” Lorraine Vail held us spellbound giving a historical backstory on a pen and ink drawing titled “Holmdel Farms,” followed by “Kitchen Tables” which charmingly revealed the possible histories of the families that sat and ate around this all-important piece of furniture. “Henry” turned out to be Al Smith’s delightful comic fiction about a shopping cart at Costco, that dreams and actually becomes a child’s racing cart.

After a short intermission Hazel Barber had us in stitches with her “Identity Crises.” Heaven knows we have all been there at one time or another. A powerful penning of “An American Survivor” was Morton Levy’s account of the debt we still owe to our brave World War ll veterans; while “Blanket Statement” told of a blanket, tenderly placed, warming up a father’s grave site. Francesca Joyce’s “Lady in Red” artfully focused on the colorful, sights and sounds found in a Sicilian street market, including the purchase of a sexy set of underduddies. A winter’s cold day in a now closed children’s summer farm/camp effectively raised goose bumpy chills during Karl Rodman’s “A Cold Day on the Farm.” Joe Pacheco got his laughs as usual with his “Skipping Arizona,” followed by the equally mirthful “Don’t Pat Me Down.”

Chicken catching proved to be a sort of farm sport for getting the live dinner experience in Nancy Carlile’s side-splitting saga titled “Affirmation.” Carol Ehrlich informed the audience that “In the End, Beauty” was her affectionate way of saying farewell to Sanibel and returning to Colorado. Sweet memories of teen dances with a young damsel became “Early Dances,” Ray Buck’s charming verse, followed by his equally appealing, “Feathered Muse.” Sandy Greco’s poem “Paradox” cleverly asks what will sort of life shall it be? follow a peaceful path or dash full-tilt into the passionate life by following that road? Beth Ellen Warner warmed us all up, drawing loud guffaws from her delighted audience with her humorous question, what do we do when tourists complain (as well the plants, animals and humans that live here in sunny, tropically warm Florida) about a “Cold Snap.” I guess the answer would be, grin and bare it… meanwhile, cover up all exposed parts.

Chalk up not one but two swell evenings’ entertainments at BIG Arts, our island home for the all the arts.