In less gifted hands, "Souvenir," which is subtitled "A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins," could have been a crude joke.
Instead, with a script by Stephen Temperley and superlative performances by Judy Kaye as Jenkins and Donald Corren as her accompanist - the wonderfully named Cosme McMoon - it makes hilarious and deeply touching theater out of something inherently ridiculous.
Jenkins, who died 60 years ago, was, I'm afraid, laughable on more than one level. A wealthy woman with all the snobbism and quaint formality of, say, Marx Bros.' foil Margaret Dumont, she had no discernible musical talent.
Nevertheless, she insisted on performing some of the hardest pieces in the classical repertory, first just for friends but ultimately in Carnegie Hall.
It would have been easy to lampoon her on both counts, but that would have become tiresome in about 15 minutes. What is extraordinary about "Souvenir" is that Temperley has made Jenkins, for all her foolishness, a remarkably sympathetic woman. You never doubt that Jenkins has tremendous dedication to the composers whose work she massacres. Kaye makes her devotion to Art incredibly moving. To have made Jenkins a tender, poignant human being is breathtaking.
More important, she approximates Jenkins' appalling singing without making it seem a stunt. For a powerful musician like Kaye to sing badly is almost harder than to sing well. It's an amazing achievement on par with Jo Stafford's comic off-key warbling as "Darlene Edwards" in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Corren is skillful at showing how her accompanist, at first understandably aghast at his assignment, becomes her protector, even her friend.
Elegantly designed, beautifully directed, "Souvenir" is a kind of loony triumph.
When your principal character's claim to fame is her atrociously bad singing, how can you make a show based on her musical exploits anything more than variations on a one-joke theme?
That's the problem faced by Simon Temperley's "Souvenir," a so-called "play with music," starring a brilliantly resourceful Judy Kaye, which opened last night at the Lyceum Theatre.
It affectionately details the strange singing career of that legendary eccentric Florence Foster Jenkins, who was camp even before the concept of camp had been defined.
A comfortably rich lady, she seemingly lived under the unfortunate misapprehension that she had been endowed with a glorious coloratura soprano voice, giving annual concerts to a select few at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Actually she had a voice that combined the easy confidence of a cat on the tiles with the uncertain technique of an amateur high-wire walker.
For the sophisticated, the poor little rich woman's dauntless aspirations to vocal fame were nothing but hilarious. Especially when they led -after practice, practice, practice - to Carnegie Hall in 1944.
With her notorious fame, thanks to her sought-after recordings, the Carnegie Hail concert was a sold-out fiasco that satisfied everyone, including the tone-deaf, almost stone-deaf, Foster Jenkins.
She was the mock of the town, with one New York music critic calling her "the First Lady of the Sliding Scale," and another writing, with telling accuracy, that "she sounds like a cuckoo in its cups."
Temperley's play, sensitively staged by Vivian Matalon, gently tells her odd tale through the kind eyes – and horrified ears -of her loyal accompanist for more than 12 years, Cosmo McMoon (Donald Corren).
It must be terribly difficult for such an accomplished singer as Kaye to sing so atrociously with such fantastic authenticity, although perhaps, in the Carnegie Hail re-creation, she wandered into understandable comic exaggeration.
Certainly, Kaye makes this awesomely awful diva disarmingly cuddly and lovable, while Corren, looking like a seedy but genial James Mason, does a lovely job, both as actor and piano accompanist.
Yet the play's central flaw remains. The real piquancy of the Foster Jenkins joke was: Did she or didn't she?
Was it a clever hoax on the public, or was this disastrously voiced soprano truly oblivious of the sounds she was making?
Temperley comes down on the side of innocence, which probably is the truth. Yet I always treasured the hope she might be giggling up her ornamental sleeve at all our superior snobbery.
Even though you've been waiting for it, the first squawk is still a shocker.
Stephen Temperley's "Souvenir," the sweet but none-too-short love letter of a play that opened last night at the Lyceum Theater, is a portrait of a lady who became a legend for singing badly, after all. For her to make anything approaching a pretty sound would be blasphemy to the cultists who continue to worship at the shrine of the real woman named Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944).
Yet there's no ignoring the jolt of the first fully sung note delivered by Judy Kaye as Mrs. Jenkins, a socialite who set elite eardrums in Manhattan a-trembling in a series of notorious private concerts from 1912 until the year she died. Up to this point, Ms. Kaye's Florence has registered as an easily pigeonholed cousin to the dithery but solemn, pearl-wearing dowagers of 1930's film comedies, like Margaret Dumont, Groucho Marx's favorite foil, and Mary Boland.
Yet when she plunges into the crystalline waters of the aria "Caro nome" from Verdi's "Rigoletto," Ms. Kaye executes the aural equivalent of a belly flop, the two-ton kind that empties a swimming pool. The brutal sound that has just erupted from her has no discernible relation to this woman's matronly, carefully groomed mien. The noise is so loud, so abrasive that it is remarkable that the audience's stunned boom of laughter comes close to drowning it out.
And there you have the entire artistic career of Florence Foster Jenkins in a single sound bite. (Or sound chomp, if you prefer.) Mrs. Jenkins, who died in her mid-70's a month after making her Carnegie Hall debut to a sold-out house, exists in the footnotes of cultural history as a perfectly self-contained walking joke, rather like the "American Idol" reject William Hung. Her appearance was the setup; her voice was the punch line.
That "Souvenir," directed by Vivian Matalon and also starring Donald Corren, emerges as more than a freak show has to do with its author's heartfelt insistence on moving beyond the punch line. (He is not the only writer to have been so inspired; another play based on Mrs. Jenkins's life, Peter Quilter's "Glorious!," opened earlier this month in London, starring Maureen Lipman.)
The investigative empathy of Mr. Temperley, Ms. Kaye and Mr. Corren, who portrays Mrs. Jenkins's long-time accompanist, turns the first act of "Souvenir" into an unexpectedly gentle and affecting comedy. More's the pity that the second act comes close to erasing its previously accumulated good will.
As its title suggests, "Souvenir" is a memory play. It is framed by the recollections of a tart sentimentalist performing in a piano bar in 1964. That's the implausibly named Cosme McMoon (Mr. Corren), an aging gay blade who spent much of his youth playing the melodies to the songs with which Mrs. Jenkins had her willful way in rehearsals and in concert.
"People used to say to me, 'Why does she do it?,' " says Cosme, in a disarming opening monologue, of his employer's self-financed recitals. "I always thought the better question was, 'Why did I?' " And it's Cosme's changing perspective on Mrs. Jenkins, whom we first meet when he interviews for a job with her, that gives the play its glimmers of breadth and depth.
For "Souvenir" - and this is a kindness - turns out to be less a simulation of a fabulously terrible singer than a portrait of a relationship. Stories about young men receiving life-affirming lessons from wacky older women are usually to be avoided. (Remember the 2003 Broadway flop "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks"?)
But in charting the phases of Cosme's years with Madame Flo, "Souvenir" casts a softly illuminating light on the fascination that many gay men have with women classically described as camp. It's not the sniggering side of this enthrallment that the play emphasizes, but something more tender - an amused but sincere admiration for the valiant excesses of women who refuse to accept their limitations, whether of old age, ugliness or, in Mrs. Jenkins's case, unconditional tone deafness.
Mr. Corren captures this ambivalent, respectful sensibility with engaging ease. As Cosme considers his mixed motives for staying with Mrs. Jenkins and his growing acceptance of her absolute faith in herself, Mr. Corren avoids limp-wristed caricature and easy laughs. Seeing Mrs. Jenkins through Cosme's clear but loving eyes is an essential optical aid for the audience.
Ms. Kaye, a Tony winner (for "The Phantom of the Opera") and longtime favorite of Broadway insiders, blossoms nobly within this framework. Mrs. Jenkins was a monomaniac, which means that she is essentially a one-note character, however many musical notes she may mangle. But Ms. Kaye strikes that single note of personality with a happy mixture of ardor, unblinking obliviousness and (you should pardon the expression) pitch-perfect period detail. As much as the costumes she wears (by Tracy Christensen), her stance and gestures are exactly of Mrs. Jenkins's time and place. (Watch her clasp her throat when Cosme warns her of vocal strain.)
She also delivers the trademark Jenkins voice, which is not so far from what you hear on recordings, with an enthusiasm and conviction that makes her more than an object of rude sport. But it's what happens around those bursts of sour song that keeps "Souvenir" on this side of shrillness.
Mr. Matalon paces the first act with a touchingly graceful restraint that matches Mr. Temperley's writing. The scene in which Cosme finally loses his temper with Mrs. Jenkins is a winning blend of artifice and earnestness. So is the jaunty reconciliation, set to the strains of the 1920's pop standard "Crazy Rhythm."
In the second act, most of it devoted to Mrs. Jenkins's appearance at Carnegie Hall, "Souvenir" turns into what it had previously and mercifully avoided: a succession of fragments from arias delivered in bad voice and outrageous costumes. This is the stuff of drag shows, though Ms. Kaye remains resolutely true to her character. And the post-performance scenes between Cosme and Mrs. Jenkins, as well as the final number, feel cheaply and artificially sentimental.
"Souvenir," which has already developed a fond following from previous incarnations by the York Theater Company in Manhattan and at the Berkshire Theater Festival, would probably be guaranteed a long and healthy life in a more intimate, cabaretlike space. Whether it was advisable to throw it onto Broadway is questionable.
It's not that Ms. Kaye and Mr. Corren get lost in a big house. They don't. But they and the script wind up having to reach for big comic and tear-jerking effects that rip the play's fine-spun charm. For the first 80 minutes or so, they are lovely company. But like the obsessed woman it celebrates, "Souvenir" doesn't know when to leave the stage.
The best worst performance of this or many a season is being perpetrated at the Lyceum Theater by Judy Kaye.
We mean this in the nicest possible way, of course. You see, Kaye is portraying society matron Florence Foster Jenkins, arguably the 20th centuty's most notoriously terrible dilettante diva, in Stephen Temperley's "Souvenir."
With Donald Corren narrating from the piano as accompanist Cosme McMoon, she earnestly hoots, yowls and approximates the pitches in some of the most harrowing arias of the coloratura repertory. The woman is as proud as she is ridiculous, as sweet as she is incomprehensibly clueless.
There are only two things wrong. First, despite Vivian Matalon's tender and amusing direction, this is a one-joke trifle stretched to almost two and a half hours. Next, though Temperley attempts to protect himself by subtitling his sentimental play "a fantasia" on Jenkins' life, almost nothing onstage is true.
Does that matter? Should we care that "Souvenir" - first seen Off- Broadway at the York Theatre last winter and fiuther developed (and recast with this Cosme) at the Berkshire Theatre Festival - is a souvenir of a discredited myth classed-up as cult-culture history?
If we were less invested - maybe an hour less - in these people and their relationship, the facts might not make us feel as confused, even betrayed, by candy-coated distortion. Jenkins did, indeed, give infamous recitals in the '30s. culminating in a sold-out Carnegie Hall blowout before she diedin 1944: Audiences did come to laugh and, perhaps, to love something noble in her delusional vanity.
According to musicologist Gregor Benko, however, she was nothing like her reputed "slightly batty, charming dowager," the pure-hearted eccentric now on Broadway. Instead, she was "cheap, secretive, superstitious, mean, dowdy and a snob." She drank Manhattans, dyed her hair blonde into her 70s and had a boy toy on the side.
There is no way to reconcile that reality with the dignified, almost puppy-faced darling with the finger-waved hair that Kaye brings to twinkling - if increasingly less fascinating - life. What a feat for this Tony Award-winning actress to be so winning as a "hog calleratura," a creature with no rhythm, less musicality and a thoroughly serious sense of the outrageous.
When not changing silly costumes for evely aria at her recital, she moves regally around her elegant royal-blue and golden music room at the Ritz-Carlton (designed by R. Michael Miller) in handsome crepe dresses (by Tracy Christensen).
The stoly is told from the piano as a memory play by McMoon, 20 years after Jenkins' death. Now the house pianist at a downtown club, he reminisces about his audition for her. An ambitious young artist, he first persuaded himself to live with the shame for the money. Naturally, he grew to adore her mysterious devotion to the muse.
Corren is good company, guiding us through the Jenkins phenomenon and its impact on the smart set. Temperley pads the slim story with too much pop music of the era, but Corren plays and sings as if this were more than filler.
We are meant to see Jenkins as unique, though she was just the best-known of many of her era's faux-divas, described by Benko as "those whose involvement and undeviating sincerity transcends things auricular." We are also meant not to know that McMoon used to laugh with the audience at her expense, and that he reportedly ended up managing a male bordello on West 42nd Street. What interesting drama that might have made.
Decades before American Idol, a revolutionary artist proved that terrible singing can be passed off as great entertainment.
Back in the 1930s and '40s a tone-deaf society woman who fancied herself a great coloratura soprano decimated arias for ecstatic audiences. Florence Foster Jenkins, the subject of Stephen Temperiey's charming Souvenir (* * * out of four), didn't have the benefit of modern pitch-correcting technology. But as envisioned by Temperley, she had an unshakable self-confidence, fed by legions of admirers.
Chief among those admirers was Foster's accompanist, Cosme McMoon, the other character seen onstage in Souvenir, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre. Their unlikely bond is beautifully detailed by performers more accomplished than the folks they play.
"Madame J" is acted and sung by Judy Kaye, whose vocal prowess has graced many productions. But to hear her, as Jenkins, tackle Mozart is to realize your worst fears about how Ashlee Simpson might sound crooning in the shower.
McMoon, who is played by the versatile Donald Corren, marvels at Jenkins' ability to mistake the hysterical outbursts at her gigs for worshipful appreciation, even when fans bolt for the doors.
"She believed the way a child might believe" in her own talents, he tells us. Corren makes this sympathy and affection palpable, without dulling the comic edges in his character's more frustrating exchanges.
His patience is tested when Jenkins delivers a concert marked by diva-defying numbers and serial costume changes. The evening threatens to end with a sad revelation, but McMoon reassures his patron, and us, that loving beautiful music can be nearly as empowering as making it.