The Essence of Art

Souvenir_2Art is extremely subjective. Especially performance art, like music and theatre. Is it defined by technical expertise? Interpretation? The experience of the performer or the experience of the audience receiving the art? All these things and more are part of Noce's presentation of Souvenir, the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman who had plenty of enthusiasm for music... and a "creative" sense of tone and expression.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a notable social icon back in the 1920's and 30's. She became famous (some would say "infamous") for her musical presentations, even performing once at Carnegie Hall. And while she had plenty of well-known admirers (Cole Porter was said to be fan), her sense of pitch and tempo were rather creative, to say the least. 


OK, let's not mince words here. As a singer, Jenkins was probably the worst act that ever appeared onstage at the venerable Carnegie Hall. While she was supposedly a reasonably accomplished pianist, her vocal stylings were simply not all that great... or even that good. And it didn't help that her choices of material were typically far beyond her abilities, combined with over-the-top costumes and props to complete the effect... although it's uncertain exactly what that effect was supposed to be at times.


Beginning Friday September 8th, two of the best musical voices in town will show us her story when Noce presents Souvenir (subtitled "a fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins"). Gina Gedler (who played Jenkins back in 2009 for StageWest here in Des Moines) returns to the role, and current director Maxwell Schaeffer couldn't be happier about it.


Souvenir_1"It's a wonderful thing to watch Gina sing badly," says Schaeffer. "She is strangely mesmerizing as Florence. I think, because most of us know she is a gifted vocalist, we actually buy into Florence's delusion. Florence KNOWS she is a fantastic singer, and since Gina projects that in reality, it is effortless for her to make us see it in Florence."


Souvenir is a two-person "play with music" and sharing the stage with Gina for this production is Max Wellman, the general manager of Noce. He's playing Cosme McMoon, who was Jenkins' accompanist and friend throughout her life. Max also gets the chance to show off his own stellar musical talents as Cosme, and director Schaeffer isn't letting either Gina or Max get by on previous talent alone.


"There is no way I can ignore the fantastic job that Tom Perrine did with the show at StageWest. I truly believe it was the pinnacle production of StageWest's evolution. So - I'm not trying to top it or create a comparable production. I am looking at it with fresh eyes, and working with two actors who have a different dynamic in a different space. I'm not letting Gina waltz through it - and I'm throwing a lot of challenging choices at Max. They are responding wonderfully."


The idea of a "different space" is presenting the play in Noce's cabaret atmosphere, almost "in the round" as it were. Schaeffer has performed and directed all over town, on stages of various sizes with productions both huge and intimate. Since his last production was Young Frankenstein at the Des Moines Playhouse, I asked him about any changes in approach between the two venues and casts, given the disparity.


"The truth is, in my experience, the challenges are similar. Whether you have two actors - or thirty - you must help them develop their characters and tell the story, according to the author. Staging takes less time with just two, but that's the main difference. The spectacle of a show like Young Frankenstein falls on the shoulders of the designers."


"I always try to direct actors in a story so it could play on a bare stage, if necessary. Of course, I would never turn down the bells and whistles of cleverly designed sets, costumes, lights, and sound. Ultimately though, if your play is only as good as your technical elements, you're not doing your job as a director."


Of course, this idea brings us around full circle, and finding the heart of Souvenir. What really is the essence of performance-style art, and how much of it is "technical expertise" vs. "creative heart and soul?" Ultimately, what did Jenkins, and her audiences, really want from her performances? Why was she so celebrated when her skills were so imperfect?


And maybe the clue is the fact that Florence Foster Jenkins truly believed in her art, and that she could be wonderful, even if not all the specific details were perfect. Perfect art risks becoming soulless, speaking to proficiency instead of human experience. And maybe, just maybe, it's the human part of Florence Foster Jenkins that people will take home with them. That would really be their Souvenir.


Souvenir will be presented at Noce Jazz/Cabaret for two weekends, beginning Friday September 8 and running until Sunday September 17. Tickets are available in person at Noce and also through their ticketing website.

Souvenir Noce Gina Gedler Max Wellman Maxwell Schaeffer Tom Perrine Florence Foster Jenkins