Unlike the leading character in Stephen Temperly's brilliant comedy SOUVENIR -- the Coyote Stageworks production, now playing through December 2 at The Annenberg Theatre in Palm Springs, is pitch perfect. Producer, and CSW Founder, Chuck Yates has skillfully assembled a stellar cast and creative team who are "a cut above" and he delivers one of those special evenings in the theatre that is not to be missed.
Based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, Temperly's book is intelligent and insightful and even though his words are meticulously crafted they never come off stilted or unreal. He has triumphed in the balance of blending high-farce and honest humanity and created layered characters that run the gamut of "larger than life" to extreme vulnerability and never lose credibility along the way.
Roy Abramsohn gives a delightfully subtle and nuanced performance as Foster Jenkins' accompanist and accidental confidante, Cosme McMoon. His Cosme is interesting, effortless and extremely honest at every turn and his natural charm and likeability engage the audience from word one. His character is a little self-involved and overtly manipulative of Foster Jenkins but Abromsohn manages to retain empathy throughout. He has an innate comic sensibility that is, at all times, controlled, understated and believable.
Linda Edwards, as Florence Foster Jenkins, is just broad enough to capture the eccentric socialite without crossing over into sit-com territory. Her Foster Jenkins in reminiscent of British actress Patricia Routledge's Hyancinth is the BBC comedy "Keeping Up Appearances" and she displays more than a modicum of comedic ability – both verbal and physical. She brings the necessary range to a character who, in less skilled hands, might easily comes off as one note. Her "off key" singing is, at times, a bit forced and played for laughs but she is consistent in her delivery and, in the end, is nothing short of endearing. Her surprise turn at the end of the play – I won't give it away – is magnificent, and the perfect icing on an already decadent cake.
Director Calvin Remsberg displayed a wonderful restraint in his staging and skillfully guided his actors to find just the right "heightened reality' and not a fraction of an inch beyond. The simplicity in his direction serves the production well and he had the wisdom not to "overdirect" and get in his own way. The fact that his "footprint" was invisible is the sign of a top-notch director and he deserves great credit for the play's ease and authenticity.
The only weak spot in an otherwise top-notch production is the meandering montage in Act Two where Foster Jenkins performs multiple arias in a Carnegie Hall Recital. By then, the "she's tone deaf" premise is well worn and there is nothing new to learn from a rather drawn out series of performances – nothing tops the sequence before. It appears that maybe the costumes and props are supposed to bring the funny but none of them are outlandish enough to top the former so they don't quite do the trick. Edwards brings nothing new to each repetitive performance and so it is a drawn out sequence that comes off a bit labored and redundant. However, all is redeemed in a heartfelt "Ave Maria" where Foster Jenkins comes to the realization that she has been the butt of a rather cruel joke and Edwards extremely honest "come to Jesus" moment is as touching as it is painful to observe.
Josh Clabaugh's scenic design was efficient, albeit nothing special – it was perhaps the only element in the production that looked like it could have belonged in any community theatre or community college production rather than professional theatre. It begged for something a bit more special to match the superior caliber of the actors and direction. The scene changes --- though minor, with just a few pieces of furniture being lifted on and off the stage – were a bit noisy and distracting throughout the production, most especially during a rather intimate, emotional moment near the end of Act Two. Bridget Bartlett's costumes were perfection – except as noted in the "Carnegie Hall" scene where the costumes could have been more over-the top and better supported the comic elements of the montage. Phil Murphy's lighting design was effective but was plagued by numerous dark spots and shadows that unintentionally took the audience out of the moment from time to time.