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Meet Florence Foster Jenkins and be prepared to laugh

By Deirdre Parker Smith

deirdre.smith@salisburypost.com

For an evening full of laughs, capped by tender moments, cool off at St. Thomas Players’ production of “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” at Lee Street theatre.

Never heard of Madam Jenkins? She was an American socialite of the 1940s who believed she was a fabulous signer. Anyone who heard her knew she was not, but people flocked to her recitals at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York. She was a novelty, determined and confident.

Mary Ann McCubbin works very hard to sing off key because she is actually an accomplished singer. Steve Stringer is her accompanist, and he’s on stage the entire time.

Stringer is a professor of music at Catawba College and not an actor, but he did a great job as the young man who needs a patron and builds a real friendship with the socialite.

Stringer can play the piano, that’s for sure, and he can sing, too. He has to play Cosmé McMoon as the baffled young musician who can’t believe he’s actually working for this tone-deaf woman.

But Cosmé also recognizes Florence’s saving grace — she believes she can sing, and she’s happy when she’s doing it. No matter how many times he wonders if she’s crazy or he’s crazy, he realizes it doesn’t really matter.

McCubbin not only has to sing off-key, she has to make about a dozen quick costume changes and then come out singing, an accomplishment in and of itself.

The costumes range from sharp shirtwaists to flowing gowns to silly outfits for a woman of Florence’s age. Teresa Brandt created everything from angel wings to a patriotic get-up that includes blue star lace.

Still not sure you can identify with this scenario? Have you ever watched the BBC’s “Keeping Up Appearances,” featuring Hyacinth Bucket (“that’s BOU-quet”)? Hyacinth is an awful singer, too, who’s convinced she’s the best.

Meryl Streep earned an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Florence in the 2016 movie “Florence Foster Jenkins.”

McCubbin plays Florence with earnestness, conviction and an underlying sweetness that keeps her bad notes from being just annoying. McCubbin’s Florence is strong and vulnerable, and ultimately, very human.

Though Stringer is a newcomer to St. Thomas Players and Lee Street, he handles the role of Cosmé very well. He’s appealing and extremely kind, despite a major outburst that expresses his total frustration with Florence’s inability to hit even one note correctly.

David Pulliam, another Catawba College professor, directed this funny play and hits all the high notes in its plot and characters. Even the preshow and entr’acte music is pleasing.

Rod Oden designed the lighting and the chandelier-filled set.

You’ll give your stomach muscles a workout laughing at this show, and you get a touching payoff at the end. What more could you ask for?

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday and June 21-23, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee this Sunday. Tickets are available online at www.leestreet.org or by calling 704-310-5507. Less Street theatre is at 329 N. Lee St.

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