As anyone who owns “The Glory (????) of the Human Voice” is aware, the Florence Foster Jenkins recording can be an invaluable weapon in the condo wars, unleashed at elevated volume to unnerve the neighbors and set their dogs howling. What’s more surprising is that the squawking soprano, who tantalized New York music lovers in the 1930s and ’40s with her unwitting desecrations of an ambitious classical repertoire, could prove such a sustained delight as the subject of a play. While this might have been a single-joke recital in other hands, “Souvenir” is hoisted as high as Madame Flo’s perilously high C’s in Judy Kaye’s towering comic performance.
Premiered last season at Off Broadway’s York Theater and then seen in a slightly reworked production at the Berkshire Theater Festival this summer, Stephen Temperley’s play is in many ways a fragile premise for a two-act stage vehicle, its conflicts only fully surfacing in the final scenes. But his central themes — the yawning gap that can separate one’s self-image from the assessments of others, the dividing line between art and travesty, the not always mutually inclusive components of passion and accomplishment in performance — are fleshed out in highly entertaining fashion through two classic New York archetypes.
As alive today as they were during Jenkins’ life, those archetypes are the filthy-rich, self-absorbed society woman, cluelessly removed from the real world and equipped with far more chutzpah than talent, and the opportunistic charmer who sees his eccentric patron as a meal ticket. But neither the tone-deaf coloratura nor her dutiful pianist of 12 years, Cosme McMoon (Donald Corren), are presented by Temperley in such generic terms.
Kaye’s Jenkins is a fluttery Park Avenue matron blissfully unaware of her vocal shortcomings; a curious mix of vanity and naivete, self-confidence and just a hint of vulnerability, she channels herself into her ear-piercing music with a religious devotion as transporting for the audience as it is for her.
Corren’s silvery-smooth McMoon is at first bemused by the determination of his employer to perform in public, agreeing to accompany her purely as a means to pay the rent. But over the course of their long association, the pianist becomes increasingly protective toward Madame J. and so accustomed to her unique sound that, when listening to more technically polished performers, it begins to appear to him that “something was missing.”
A framing device that’s more serviceable than inspired places McMoon as resident pianist at a Greenwich Village supper club in 1964, reminiscing about Jenkins 20 years after her death. R. Michael Miller’s simple and pristine blue and white set — which ingeniously miniaturizes the stage by placing a proscenium within the Lyceum’s already ornate proscenium — doubles also as the music room in FFJ’s suite at the Ritz-Carlton; the ballroom at the same hotel, where she gave annual recitals (which seem far more frequent in Temperley’s account); and Carnegie Hall during McMoon’s song-by-song recap of the soprano’s career-capping concert.
During their first meeting, Jenkins informs McMoon, “What matters most is the music you hear in your head.” She reveals that her late father and husband both actively discouraged her singing, but now, in her wealthy widowhood, her gift will no longer be denied. With all the cultivated affectations of a true lyric diva, and the requisite smattering of French and Italian phrases, she ushers McMoon to the piano and launches into a screeching rendition of “Caro Nome” from “Rigoletto,” with no two notes even remotely related.
The play’s central comic dynamic is established in Jenkins’ unshakably self-assured conviction that hers is a flawless instrument and McMoon’s shuddering deadpan reaction, embellished through the accompanist’s diplomatic “critiquing” of her vocal prowess: “It seems to me … some notes are not perhaps quite … secure.” Corren makes a lively foil throughout, with just enough arching of the eyebrows and queeny disdain to let the audience in on his mortification while continuing to humor his employer. (Madame’s obliviousness to Cosme’s sexuality sparks some amusing dialogue.)
The humor is sharpest when she blithely steamrolls his attempts to improve her singing: “When we see B flat on the page, for example, we must be certain that’s the note we sing,” he offers. “I think it’s possible to be too analytical, don’t you?” comes her reply. “Nothing is more detrimental to good singing than this modern mania for accuracy.”
McMoon’s prickly response when the singer remarks on imperfections in his technique at the Bechstein adds a welcome element of friction. His exasperated outburst, calling her a “silly woman,” so wounds and shocks her it provides an affecting glimpse into the fragility beneath Florence’s poise.
This is a peculiarly New York story, and the playwright ably draws on the fact this is a city in which cultlike fanaticism can develop around the most arcane entertainment phenomena. While it now seems absurd that a performer could achieve such renown for murdering the classics yet have zero awareness of being an object of ridicule, Temperley’s playful script makes Florence’s beatific ignorance quite plausible within her deluded bubble. She sincerely believes the people stuffing handkerchiefs in their mouths to stop laughing are overcome by emotion.
The writing could at times be more resourceful, relying too heavily on McMoon to describe events rather than dramatizing them, and shaving 10 or so minutes might benefit the play. But Vivian Matalon’s crisp direction keeps it engaging.
A large part of the central character’s persuasiveness is due to Kaye’s richly sympathetic turn. She makes the singer a fearful snob but also a guileless innocent, inviting admiration for her complete lack of self-doubt and the undiluted happiness she experiences — and conveys, for different reasons — through her singing. The rapture on Kaye’s face as Madame Flo listens to a gramophone record of her butchering of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria from “The Magic Flute” (“I must say I’m quite pleased. Quite pleased. It has spirit. Con brio, molto vivace!”) is sublimely funny, as is her gentle chiding of Cosme for a perceived slip-up in his playing.
Not just tuneless but also so lacking in rhythm and innate musicality that she’s unable to move, shake a maraca or even execute a military marching step in time with the accompaniment, Kaye’s Florence is like Dame Edna crossed with Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers movies, singing with the voice of Terry Jones in Monty Python drag. She’s as endearing as she is daffy. For a singer as accomplished as Kaye (a fact illustrated in the play’s moving final scene), producing such a shrill noise is a stunning technical achievement in itself.
The re-enactments of FFJ’s Carnegie Hall triumph — accented by Tracy Christensen’s hilariously fussy costumes — are highlighted by her homage to her loyal pianist, performing his Mexican “Serenata” in full ethnic regalia. Kaye’s roller-coaster journey in this final stretch — from campy cavorting to tickled-pink, girlish glee to pompous solemnity to pained humiliation when she finally detects the mocking laughter — caps “Souvenir” on a poignant note. The cruel arrows that briefly pierce the armor of this giddy creature, and Cosme’s compassionate dishonesty in dispelling her hurt, transform a frothy entertainment into a beguiling comic jewel with a heart.