Thank the gods for Jack Forbes Wilson.
Put that Milwaukee treasure on a stage with a piano and he creates magic, the kind of magic that can lift the most ordinary stuff into the realm of excellence.
A perfect example is “Souvenir,” the two-person musical on stage in the intimate Stackner Cabaret at the Milwaukee Rep.
The show is an exploration of the life and times – 12 years of the life – of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy New York socialite who was convinced she could sing the most challenging of operatic arias. In reality, she couldn’t carry a tune in a bushel basket.
Her ear was so far off that the sound of her voice was worse than scratching on a blackboard or a gun being fired next to your ear or Donald Trump giving a speech.
Marguerite Willbanks, a Broadway actor with a ton of musical credit, plays the hapless and hopelessly misguided Florence while Mr. Wilson plays Cosme McMoon, the songwriter and pianist who grudgingly becomes her accompanist, her mentor and her support group of one.
Most everyone knows this story, especially after the Oscar-nominated 2016 film starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. The tale begins with tiny recitals at homes, moves to a hall in the Ritz Carlton and finally comes to a merciful end in Carnegie Hall.
Mr. Wilson narrates the story from a perspective forged in the 20 years after the sudden and unexpected death of Florence in 1944. He takes us from his initial dismay and shock upon hearing Ms. Jenkins first sing to him and narrates the progress (there is none) during the 12 years they spent together.
It starts with a caterwauling version of the beautiful “Cantates de Ópera” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” The shock and awe and disgust on Mr. Wilson’s face is mixed with an absolute fascination that this woman actually thinks she is hitting the notes that must be hit.
After the butchery of the Verdi, she moves to enchant him with the Schubert “Ave Maria,” a hallowed piece of music. Cosmo plays, listens, grits his teeth and warily suggests that perhaps Florence might want to work a little bit on all the notes.
“Nothing,” she huffs, “is more harmful to great music than this modern mania for accuracy.”
Cosmo is clearly on the horns of a dilemma. He writes songs nobody wants to sing and he’s broke. He can make a lot of money being the muse to Florence. And he caves into his need for cash, sacrificing his principles. Along the way he develops a kind of affection for Florence.
“One of the things that I have to do is protect her,” he says to the audience. What’s less clear is who he is protecting her from – the crowds that turn out in droves to laugh, or from herself.
“She believed the way a child might believe,” he says. “But is it folly or madness?”
Those are deep and probing questions that don’t come close to being answered during this two hour production.
The show ends with Willbanks walking to the center of the stage, undressed from the incredible costumes she had been wearing, and singing a haunting version of “Ave Maria.” There are chills., as well there should be.
Ms. Willbanks is a polished performer and she accurately captures the airs of a matron in New York. It’s not easy for a professional singer to sing that far out of key and she manages the task with only a couple of moments when she actually sings in tune.
Mr. Wilson has ample opportunity to shine. He delivers a poignant “One for my Baby ( and One More for the Road).” He follows that with a lively version of the jazz standard “Crazy Rhythm.”
The whole thing takes place on an evocative set designed by Lauren Nigri, featuring a big piano, an upholstered fainting couch and a matching Queen Anne chair.
The costumes, designed by the brilliant Jason Orlenko, could be a show all by itself. The steady parade, especially during the Carnegie concert, is a sight to behold. Florence had a different costume for each song and the whole thing was a dazzling feast for the eyes, filled with fancy and humor.
Everything about this show was top notch except for one thing.
The story of Florence has only one joke. Cosmo can play and Florence can’t sing. And like your uncle’s favorite joke that he tells every Thanksgiving, it loses it’s grip after enough repetition. Before too long, the whole family begins to yawn.
This show might be better served with one 90 minute act and an effort to create some vivid ups and downs in this relationship. What we get, over and over is, “She can’t Sing and He can’t stand it.” We need something more compelling to make us last so long.
The whole thing is kind of like a gorgeous piñata that when you break it open, there’s no candy inside.
“Souvenir” runs through November 5 and information on tickets and showtimes is available at www.milwaukeerep.com.
Production credits: Director, Laura Braza; Music Director, Jack Forbes Wilson; Scenic Designer, Lauren Nigri; Costume Director, Jason Orlenko; Lighting Designer, Ellie Rabinowitz; Sound Designer, Zack Berinstein; Lighting Designer, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Audra Kuchling; Production Photos, Michael Brosilow.