This month, the Heritage Theatre Festival presents a unique piece in a production notable for its director’s connection to the venue in which it’s performed. Award-winning director and choreographer Cate Caplin, who has worked with the likes of David Hyde Pierce on Broadway, has directed and choreographed six different seasons of the Heritage Theatre Festival, but Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins (not strictly a musical but described as a play with incidental music) is the first production she has directed in the theater named after her mother.
Caplin’s parents, Mortimer and Ruth, shared a love of the dramatic arts and donated the funds to construct the 300-seat Ruth Caplin Theatre, completed in 2013 and located within the University of Virginia’s arts grounds. Mortimer turns 100 this month and will attend his daughter’s production as part of his centennial birthday celebration. The production is dedicated to him and to the memory of Ruth (who passed away in 2014).
“It will be an emotionally loaded night and I couldn’t be more delighted,” says Caplin.
Based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, Souvenir chronicles the aspirations of an opera soprano whose indefatigable passion is coupled with an inability to sing on key (and her ignorance of this fact), as well as the friendship she develops with her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon.
The title is inspired by Jenkins’ desire to make a recording of her voice as a “lovely souvenir.” Her unlikely career led her all the way to Carnegie Hall, where her 1944 show quickly sold out and 2,000 people were turned away. (She passed away from a heart attack a month after she performed.) The play, which opened on Broadway in 2005 and has recently been adapted for a film starring Meryl Streep, has been on Caplin’s directorial wish list for years.
The star of the show was once described by a gossip columnist as one who “can sing anything but notes,” and one of the directorial challenges is to cultivate the humor inherent in the spectacle while taking care not to grate on the audience’s ears or dehumanize the protagonist. Caplin achieves this by focusing on Jenkins’ deeply felt passion for music.
“I am constantly talking to the actors about when the moments need to pop to the more extreme choices and when they need to pull back,” Caplin says. “The key is staying completely sincere and heartfelt at all times. Never to push or indicate or go for deliberate laughs.”
Based on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, Souvenir chronicles the aspirations of an opera soprano whose indefatigable passion is coupled with an inability to sing on key.
Debra Wagoner, an award-winning actress and vocalist based in Richmond, stars as Jenkins. Caplin describes her as “a highly accomplished singer and comedienne who brings her own very specific skill set to the project, to be able to sing off-key with the utmost sincerity (and without hurting her voice) and then being able to deliver a combination of high comedy and absolute heartfelt sincerity in all that she says and does.”
New York City-based actor Jonathan Spivey plays McMoon, whose character is charged with narrating the story of Jenkins’ career, as well as acting, singing and playing piano.
“It is extremely challenging to juggle all these talents at the same time while doing the play but he does so beautifully,” Caplin says.
Wagoner and Spivey played these two characters together at Virginia Repertory Theatre in 2009, though Caplin’s styling, interpretation, staging and choreography are entirely different.
“I thought their history with the piece would be helpful in this tight rehearsal period,” Caplin says. She considers their past experience a base coat on which to build. “I wanted them to discover new moments together in our current incarnation.”
What interests Caplin most—and drives this production—is the relationship between the two characters.
“[McMoon] worried about how others might judge and react to her odd sensibilities and he became almost protective of her. But after working with her for 12 years, he really started to prefer the way she sang,” says Caplin. “She was actively discouraged as a child but she valued music above all else. She says upfront, ‘The most important thing is the music you hear in your head, the impossible ideal, the beauty not quite within our grasp.’ Cosmé jokes at one point [that] he wonders if she was some sort of genius. He heard another renowned singer and said ‘Something was missing.’ It’s a joke in the context of the play, but I think there was a sense of real truth to what he was saying.”