by Rita Charleston
In 1932, Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite with a famously uncertain sense of pitch and key, met mediocre pianist Cosme McMoon, and the two teamed up in hopes of achieving musical success. Over the next dozen years their bizarre partnership yielded off-key recitals that became the talk of New York but not in the way either had hoped for.
The play, “Souvenir, A Fantasia in the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” written by Stephen Temperley, continues at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse through Jan. 5. The play’s title comes from Jenkins insisting on recording Mozart’s “Queen of the Night,” saying that when her voice is no longer so strong, the recording will make a lovely “souvenir.” (“Florence Foster Jenkins” was a highly acclaimed major motion picture in 2016, with Meryl Streep playing the title character.)
The two-person play, directed by Tony Braithwaite, features April Woodall as Jenkins and Sonny Leo as McMoon. The two actors have performed these roles together before, and according to Woodall, they have only changed the characterizations based on who is directing them.
“This is my sixth time playing the role of Jenkins with six different directors, and this time around Tony is directing me,” Woodall explained. “Each director has had a new perspective and tries to give their interpretation to the production. So I learn something new each time around, and for me, that keeps it quite fresh.”
Born in Dallas, Texas and raised in a Southern Baptist family in which music and singing were very important, the family moved to Newport News, Virginia, when Woodall was just 13.
“One of my earliest memories was standing in front of a mirror and pretending to be an opera singer,” Woodall said. “My family wondered about that because nobody in the family had ever been to an opera. I also thought that very odd too, but all through high school I did musicals, and then I went to the Curtis Institute of Music to study. I sort of got trapped into studying opera because of my voice. Instead of it being a folk song voice or a love song voice, it sounded more like it should be in the world of opera or perhaps musical theater.”
After college, Woodall said, she was in love with Philadelphia and with a man she eventually married. The couple had a daughter, and they now live in Jenkintown. Along the way, Woodall, now 61, has performed in a variety of roles and received numerous accolades and awards.
Today, she’s thoroughly enjoying playing Jenkins once again.
“Here is a woman who supposedly once told a friend that ‘people might say I can’t sing, but they will never say I didn’t sing.’ So she may have had some indication that there was something lacking, but it did not deter her from doing something she loved. And that’s the inspiration of this woman.
“The play is written that you sing poorly in the style of Florence Foster Jenkins for the entire first part of the show, and then at the end you come out and sing in your good voice so the audience can leave the theater with more sonorous sounds in their ears.”
Add that to the fact that during the play there are 13 costume changes, which makes for a bit of a roller coaster ride.
“So much is happening that you get on and you don’t get off,” Woodall remarked.
Which is just fine with her since she left the stage some time ago to try her hand at any number of different things but returned to the acting world more than a decade ago.
“At my stage of life I noticed that many actresses who had been applying themselves for so many decades were starting to retire. They really didn’t want the mother and grandmother roles any more, so that left an opening for me. I started doing roles like Mother Abbess in ‘The Sound of Music’ and anything else that came my way.”
And even after six times doing this role, “Souvenir” has become one of Woodall’s favorites.
“And one of the nicest things that happens after the show is when an audience member tells me that the show has given them the courage to go home and do that thing that they’re passionate about, even if no one else supports that. And this particular play does that to people. And I think the nicest thing that an actor can hear is that they’ve inspired someone to be the best they can be.”
Act II is located at 56 E. Butler Ave. in Ambler. Call 215-654-0200 for tickets.