1944, soprano singer Florence Foster Jenkins’ performance at Carnegie Hall sold out…in two hours. The wealthy eccentric gave each performance her all – unfortunately (or fortunately and famously) she was terrible. Fortunately (or unfortunately), she had no idea.
Under the direction of Robert Boles, Claire Morkin takes the Third Avenue Playhouse stage as the delusional Florence, along with James Valcq, who plays her accompanist, Cosme McMoon.
I spoke with Morkin about the challenges and joys of playing Florence, her longtime history with Valcq, and singing off-key.
Sally Slattery (SS): Tell me a little bit about Souvenir, how did you get involved?
Claire Morkin (CM): In the summer of 2011, my daughter, Josie, and I made what was starting to become an annual camping sojourn to Door County. That particular summer it was to see our dear friends at Door Shakespeare, one of whom was James Valcq.
James mentioned that he had me in mind for a role in a show I had never heard of, at a theatre I’d never heard of, and of course, my answer was, “Yes!”
The show, Souvenir, was to be produced the following summer, and was only a two-month contract, but we loved it so much here, we decided to stay.
We have found a wonderful, welcoming, supportive community and we’re so glad we took the leap of faith to make this our new home.
SS: Florence Foster Jenkins appears quite the woman – an opera singer famous for how terrible of a singer she was. What are your thoughts on Florence?
CM: I find it fascinating that someone can have such blind confidence in themselves. She loved music so much, she would just get lost in it while singing…so lost, that she had no idea she was singing off-key! She was very giving and a great patron of the arts – always donating what money she earned to her favorite charities.
SS: What do you enjoy most about playing Florence?
CM: The relationship between Florence’s accompanist, Cosme, and Florence herself, is a wonderful, heartwarming story. They cared for each other a great deal and he was quite protective toward her.
James is just wonderful in this role and it is great fun being able to play opposite him. There are also many humorous moments in the show and it brings great joy to hear people laugh.
I love the audiences here in Door County. I actually find them quite similar to the ones I was fortunate enough to experience in New York – smart, supportive, kind, savvy. It’s such an honor to be able to share the magic that is live theatre
SS: What is the biggest challenge in playing Florence?
CM: The biggest challenge, actually, is having to sing off-pitch for the whole show. Also, the costume changes are very fast and a bit difficult. I very honestly couldn’t do them without the help of my dresser, Judy Tepe.
SS: After a Google search, it appears you and James worked together in the 1995 production of Zombies from The Beyond. Where did you two meet?
CM: James and I met, of all places, in a ballet class at UW – Milwaukee. We still joke about the instructor who chose to point at both of us one day and say, in a bit of a derisive tone, “Where did you get your training?” To which our non-verbal reply was, “Right here, right now. This is it!”
We became fast friends and began working together in the chorus at the Skylight Theatre in Milwaukee. When James asked me to audition for a show he’d written called Zombies From The Beyond, I jumped at the chance and was so happy to then be cast in the show. Taking the show to New York and appearing Off Broadway was truly a dream come true.
SS: When you are not acting in productions at Third Avenue Playhouse, how do you fill your time?
CM: I teach dance at the Y, I am a sub aide for the Sturgeon Bay School District as well as the forensics coach at the high school. I direct the musical at Sevastopol School, I work part time at the Healthy Way health food store. I teach beginning music lessons – guitar, piano and voice.
I also still travel to Milwaukee once a month or so to sing with my jazz band. We’ve recorded two CDs – one of which is for sale in the TAP lobby.
Basically, I do whatever I can that is not a 9 to 5 so that I continue to do theatre – which is my labor of love.
Third Avenue Playhouse presents Souvenir through March 9. Tickets are $22, $10 for students, and $5 for children. Performances begin at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and at 2 pm on Sunday. For tickets, call 920.243.1760, visit thirdavenueplayhouse.com, or stop by the box office at 239 North Third Avenue in Sturgeon Bay from Tuesday through Friday, 12 to 5 pm.