Souvenir by Sing'theatre: Play about off-key singer hits right notes

British actress Leigh McDonald, as Jenkins in Souvenir.
British actress Leigh McDonald, as Jenkins in Souvenir.PHOTO: ANNE VALLUY

REVIEW / THEATRE

SOUVENIR

Sing'theatre

KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT / Sept 20


Rarely does a performer give a great show while singing badly.

But this was true of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy American socialite whose tone-deaf singing won a fan following in the early to mid-20th century, and repeated by British actress Leigh McDonald, who plays Jenkins in Souvenir.

Flamboyant costumes helped both women of course, as did determined playing from an accompanist (Hossan Leong, in his role as Jenkins' long-suffering musical partner Cosme McMoon, lets the piano sing for a change, ).

However, the main reason behind Jenkins' success was her bulletproof self-confidence and touching devotion to the music she mauled on stage. McDonald shows us that Jenkins, perfectly embodying the tone-deaf singer who was also deaf to the reason why her private recitals were always sold out and hundreds had to be turned away from her only public recital, at Carnegie Hall.

She absolutely believed in the beauty of her voice. If listeners were stuffing handkerchiefs into their mouths, they must be stifling cries of joy. If people were rushing for the door mid-concert, it was because they could not bear the brilliance of her performance. They were surely carried away by the exquisite notes Jenkins heard in her head but always failed to actually hit.

And of course friends like McMoon kept up the illusion. One of the most memorable moments in Souvenir comes as McMoon convinces Jenkins that the Carnegie Hall audience was not laughing at her but in appreciation of her talent.

Souvenir, directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall hits many right notes, with a few minor flats, such as Leong's sporadic American accent and blocking that confines him to a corner with the piano for most of the show.

  • BOOK IT / SOUVENIR

  • WHERE: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road

    WHEN: Until Sept 29; Tuesday to Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 4 and 8pm; Sunday, 4pm

    ADMISSION: $45 to $59 from Sistic

    INFO: singtheatre.com

A musical about a singer who cannot sing may seem an odd choice for Sing'theatre, an arts group known for technically perfect and moving productions such as A Singaporean In Paris (also starring Leong and McDonald who both hit all the right notes). However, it is an excellent choice for an arts group devoted to music.

Jenkins was an amateur in the truest sense, performing because she loved the works of Verdi and Mozart. One does not laugh, but writhes in pain while hearing her sing Mozart's fiendishly difficult Queen Of The Night aria. Recordings survive on YouTube and are played during Souvenir, but one is also jealous of how jaunty and self-possessed her voice is.

McDonald does not attempt the aria on stage, conscious like most people are of the gap between ambition and current ability. Jenkins was unable to perceive that gap in herself. It was a tragedy for us but a lifelong triumph for her.