Long before the unlikely musical stardom of William Hung, there was Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy, well-meaning socialite soprano who, for decades until her death in 1944, delighted audiences at charity benefits with horrifically off-key versions of opera classics. The York Theater Company explores Jenkins’ peculiar yet fascinating delusion in Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” which tells the tone-deaf singer’s tale from the perspective of her longtime accompanist, Cosme McMoon. But the show proves that for a two-hander, it takes two to tango: Judy Kaye’s inspired perf as the talentless diva is all the more impressive when the other role is so severely miscast.
The play ponders with fitful effectiveness the universal themes Jenkins’ story arouses: Aren’t we all somewhat deluded? Is the music we hear in our head any less real than what others hear in the objective world?
The least to be said for Kaye’s performance is that she’s wonderful at singing badly — no mean feat in and of itself. But Kaye (“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Mamma Mia!”) does much more than hit all the right wrong notes. Her “Madame Flo” is so convinced of her own talent, so passionate for the music she unwittingly mauls, that her determination to share her “gift” with the world seems not just understandable, but generous. Kaye’s Jenkins has no ear to speak of, but a heart, and an unshakeable if cockeyed sense of self, to admire.
More reason, then, to fret that director Vivian Matalon doesn’t provide Kaye with the support she needs to make the evening something richer. Jack F. Lee, who plays Cosme McMoon, is a highly respected conductor, music professor and vocal coach. But it’s quite unfair to expect him to deliver the acting this part requires.
Whereas likable crackpot Jenkins is a fun part to play, any nuance and depth in Temperley’s writing rests solely on the actor’s playing McMoon. This is a part that calls for someone who can dole out carefully calibrated euphemisms with some panache (Jenkins’ singing, McMoon says early on in a massive understatement, is “not quite secure.”) And, even more challenging, the actor must capture McMoon’s emotional journey from baffled hired hand to Jenkins’ most dedicated protector.
Add to that the demands of playing the piano (Lee’s strength) and covering an age range from late 20s to late 60s, and it’s clear Temperley has created a very difficult role. Lee just isn’t up to the task, and reduces the character’s emotions mostly to various degrees of pique followed by exasperated capitulation.
Even with a sufficient McMoon, Temperley relies heavily on that character’s narration to carry the “meaning” of Jenkins’ story. Too often, “Souvenir” feels more like notes toward a potential dramatization of their relationship than the actual dramatization itself. Also unhelpful are the title, which is oblique to the point of pointlessness, and the subtitle, “A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” which seems more an excuse for lack of structure than a description of the result.
Despite that, though, the evening delivers truly memorable moments, thanks to Kaye. The opening scene, when Jenkins first sings — so painfully off-key — and then declares herself to have perfect pitch, is pitched perfectly. Later, when Jenkins listens to her own voice for the first time on a recording and still doesn’t hear anything wrong, Kaye captures a real sense of glee, along with a gentleness in Jenkins’ comical criticisms of Cosme.
It’s a performance that sings, in tune and on key. But without a proper partner in this endeavor, all that flies are the most comic bits, and those wear thin. The rest of this two-hander emits the sound of one hand clapping.