Fans of the Oscar-nominated film 'Florence Foster Jenkins' will want to see the Rep’s take on the socialite’s strange story.

The Rep started its 2017-18 season off on a high note. An intentionally cringe-inducing, frequently funny and occasionally tear-jerking high note.

Souvenir, which opened in the theater’s intimate Stackner Cabaret space on September 8 and plays through November 5, is a musical about a real-life Manhattan socialite who aspired to be an opera singer. Florence Foster Jenkins, 1868-1944, sang to packed houses in New York City for years, even selling out Carnegie Hall. But not because she had a great voice, or even a mediocre one. In fact, she was famed for her utter lack of singing ability.

“No one, before or since,” historian Stephen Pile once wrote, “has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.”


Milwaukee Repertory Theater production of “Souvenir” in the Stackner Cabaret, September 8-November 5, 2017, with Jack Forbes Wilson and Marguerite Willbanks. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Stephen Temperley, the writer of Souvenir, chooses to portray Jenkins as a tragi-comic figure, someone worthy of both sympathy and scorn. Most of the early scenes, especially, are played for laughs. And Jack Forbes Wilson, who plays Jenkins’s pianist and confidant Cosme McMoon wrings a great deal of comedy from his character’s incredulous exchanges with Jenkins. But as the story progresses, the snarky asides come less and less often, and McMoon starts singing a different, more empathetic tune.

Marguerite Willbanks, who plays Jenkins, treads lightly between the two poles of tragedy and comedy too. The actress – who’s traveled the country on a number of opera tours and sang for the soundtrack of Disney’s Enchanted – delivers every aria with shrill gusto, missing note after note. And it’s hard to stifle laughter when she allows a strange nasal quality to creep into rendition of Schubert’s Ave Maria. But, when she isn’t singing off-key, she brings a sense of dignity and magnanimity to her role, particularly in the second act.

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The show, which runs about two hours, wouldn’t be ill-served by a few cuts here and there, but the two actors are more than capable of keeping audiences engaged. And when Willbanks appears on stage for a final time, to sing her swan song, I don’t think I was the only one in the audience blinking back tears.

Plus, food and drinks are served in the Stackner Cabaret space, making it an ideal date locale for anyone looking for dinner and a show. 

Go See It: Souvenir; Stackner Cabaret, Milwaukee Repertory Theater; Sept. 8-Nov. 5.