By Andy Smith
By all accounts, Florence Foster Jenkins was the Ed Wood of coloratura sopranos, an artist so transcendently awful her work approached genius.
Wood’s cult status rests on a handful of schlock horror and exploitation films (Glen or Glenda, Plan 9 From Outer Space ), low-budget movies so ineptly conceived, staged, acted and edited, that audiences hooted at all the wrong places and treasure them to this day.
Jenkins’ had a singular vocal gift: butchering such arias as Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” and Mozart’s “The Queen of the Night” from The Magic Flute when performing for select groups in the music room at New York’s Ritz Carlton, on a handful of recordings, and, finally, to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.
What Foster Jenkins and Wood also shared was an oblivious and almost unshakeable belief in their own gifts. This confidence, fused with a complete lack of talent, is why these unfortunate souls cling to the imaginations of sci-fi geeks, gay men and smart alecks everywhere.
The world will always be filled with mediocre directors and sopranos, easily forgettable and destined for oblivion, but only a handful of the truly awful have staying power. And while Wood inspired more-talented directors (Tim Burton even immortalized him in a biopic), clearly Foster Jenkins has fired the imaginations of author Stephen Temperley and Judy Kaye, the gifted singing actress who captures Jenkins’ fascinating mixture of arrogance and total naiveté.
Together they’ve created Souvenir, a two-character play with music. This slender piece, frequently hilarious, though only sporadically moving, is a must-see for Kaye’s tour-de-force performance.
20 Years of Musical Mishaps
Using Foster Jenkins’ legacy as a jumping off point, the piece, subtitled a Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins tells this brave character’s story through the eyes of Cosme McMoon (Donald Corren), a frustrated composer who spent many years as her competent, long-suffering accompanist. Souvenir could also be subtitled, “A memory play.” This two-character study opens in 1964, with McMoon performing in a Greenwich Village piano bar, on the anniversary of Jenkins’ death 20 years before. Unable to concentrate on the keyboard, McMoon chats with his audience, digressing into memories of his collaboration with the infamous, improbable soprano.
The story begins in the 1920s, when McMoon – a bright-eyed, undiscovered young composer new to Jazz-Age Manhattan – auditions for Jenkins, a middle-aged society matron of independent means, agreeing to play piano for her upcoming recital.
At first in awe of Jenkins’ vocal incompetence (“What was she hearing?”), through a mixture of greed, desperation and pity, the financially strapped McMoon gradually gets sucked into the matron’s well-appointed world. McMoon spends 20 years – right up until the older woman’s death of heart failure during the Second World War – backing Jenkins onstage and struggling in vain to improve her nonexistent vocal technique during their interminable rehearsals.
McMoon also becomes a sort of guardian, protecting his charge from critics and her own audiences, mostly jaded sophisticates who flocked to her charity recitals for their camp value, laughing to the point of tears and stuffing handkerchiefs in their mouths to muffle the noise (Jenkins thought her moving “Ave” had brought on the weeping). Though years of having his varied compositions (popular songs, art songs, opera, etc.) rejected by the music industry gradually eroded McMoon’s own confidence, his admiration for the assurance and bravado of the indominitable Foster Jenkins’ only grew.
The Benefits of Brevity
Judy Kaye carries the evening with a skilled and often inspired performance, but asking her to bare this burden for well over two hours is asking too much. Ideally, Souvenir should be capped at 100 fast-paced minutes.
During its sold-out run Off-Broadway on The York Theatre’s intimate stage, Kaye’s vocal bumbling, amateurish stage gestures, and lightning fast costume changes as she recreated Jenkins’ Carnegie Hall debacle reduced audiences to gasping-for-air hysterics which must have matched those experienced by Jenkins’ original audience.
Though still amusing on the Lyceum’s somewhat larger stage, this quick-change sequence loses momentum and subsequent laughs as Kaye leaves the stage for frequent costume changes.
Created by Tracy Christensen (who must have sharpened her eye for period design as Associate Costume Designer on recent revivals of The Constant Wife and Wonderful Town ), the costumes themselves are wonders, from fiery Mexican flower girl to a cream-silk gown with enormous angel wings. Veteran director Vivian Matalon ( Morning’s at Seven, P.S. Your Cat is Dead! ) does a competent job of keeping the over-long script moving as much as possible.
Just Missing the Mark
A good actor with excellent timing, it’s difficult to fault Corren’s more-than-adequate performance, but, for whatever reason, there’s no chemistry between his McMoon and Kaye’s Jenkins. In the play’s quieter moments, Corren (well received as Harvey Feinstein’s replacement in Torch Song Trilogy ) seems more grudgingly tolerant of his reliable cash cow (he lives half the year on his six months of rehearsals and performances with Jenkins), rather than truly concerned about protecting this proud but vulnerable woman from the devastating truth about her voice.
This slight chemical mismatch does nothing to take away from Kaye, a performer who uses all of her almost 40 years of stage experience to great effect. A Tony Award® winner for The Phantom of the Opera, Kaye’s varied and impressive resume also includes major Broadway roles in Mamma Mia! and as Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century, a recurring role on “Law & Order,” and even appearances with major opera companies, singing such mezzo roles as Musetta in La Boheme, the lead in The Merry Widow, and the old woman in New York City Opera’s production of Candide.
After seeing Kaye play the tone-deaf soprano both on- and off-Broadway, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else equaling her in this role. That she has managed to discipline her wonderful voice to squawk, gurgle and generally massacre “The Jewel Song,” “The Laughing Song,” and other signature Jenkins’ arias is truly amazing.
Souvenir is playing at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. For tickets, call (1) (212) 239-6200 or see http://www.telecharge.com .