The current Hot Summer Nights|Theatre Raleigh production of Stephen Temperley’s charming two-hander Souvenir makes for a deft, pointed evening of theatre that is both wildly funny and unexpectedly moving.
For those in the know, the name Florence Foster Jenkins has long been the cue for laughter of an especially derisive nature. Jenkins, a wealthy Manhattan socialite, achieved ironic celebrity in the 1930s and ‘40s as a soprano whose singular tone-deafness inspired a coterie of fans to embrace her astonishing ineptness, leading to a much-celebrated (and sold-out) Carnegie Hall appearance in 1944. Her voice was thin, her pitch guaranteed to be off. She was the living Classical embodiment of Jo Stafford’s fictional pop alter-ego Darlene Edwards, with one crucial difference: Stafford’s pitch was known to be perfect, enabling her to hit deliberate wrong notes with unerring accuracy; Jenkins couldn’t hit the right one if she’d been thrown at it.
It’s all too easy to laugh at Jenkins — you’ve only to track down one of her recordings. And while Souvenir doesn’t stint on the comedy inherent in the subject, what makes it treasurable, aside from the playwright’s literacy and wit, is its generosity of spirit. Temperley makes Jenkins so amiable, and so charmingly incapable of hearing her own appallingly poor voice, one cannot help but find her endearing.
While the playwright makes no claims on absolute biographical fealty — Souvenir is subtitled (although not, curiously, in the Hot Summer Nights program) A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins — the essential facts are observed. The comic drama is narrated (“hosted” might be a better term) by Cosmé McMoon [nee McMunn], Jenkins’ accompanist of a dozen years, his reminiscences occasioned by the 20th anniversary of the death of the woman he refers to as “Madame Flo” and for whom he served as “colleague, confidante and collaborator.”
An engaging confrere, Cosmé interrupts his own musical solos in a stream-of-consciousness style and much, if not most, of his dialogue is double-edged — although “Madame Flo,” necessarily, can no more hear the innuendo beneath it than she can sense her own, stunning lack of pitch. Nor does she comprehend the thinly veiled barbs of others. Her remarks about herself exhibit an even greater lack of self-awareness: Of her rendition of Gounoud’s “Ave Maria” she observes that, “Often, it provokes tears.” Whether of hysterical laughter or musicological anguish, we can only speculate. Initially stunned by her ineptitude, Cosmé ultimately finds a kind of warped native genius in her, admiring, as he puts it, “the scale of her folly.” His growing affection for Jenkins, his concern for her feelings, and his wish to protect her from herself form the spine of the play.
Jonas Cohen exhibits superb comic timing as Cosmé. He makes the most of the composer/pianist’s utter, fascinated horror, and his own, somewhat embarrassed circumstances. Genial and slightly “queeny” — which makes Jenkins’ naïve assumptions about his sexuality as richly amusing as her own benighted self-assurance — Cohen nonetheless locates the very real anxieties and frustrations Cosmé labors under, and his sudden, brutal outburst of honest fury at the climax of the first act is stunningly effective.
As Jenkins, Lisa Jolley was sometimes less than assured with her lines at the beginning of each act on the night I saw the play, and occasionally thereafter. But she is otherwise completely winning, her smiles of quiet triumph as beautiful as Jenkins’ almost ethereal belief in herself. She is especially affecting after Cosmé’s eruption, yet she’s riotously funny in the Carnegie segment, most notably as a Spanish Dona with a single, enthusiastically misapplied castanet. The concentration and effort required to hit all of those wrong notes with unerring inaccuracy must be taxing, to say the least, but Jolley never lets us see the strain.
Chris Bernier’s set is, to be charitable, chintzy — especially as it represents the music room at the Ritz-Carleton — and is pitched, uneasily, halfway between the stylized and the real. But his lighting is understated and effective, with warm tones for the rehearsal scenes and a splendid, cool blue, nearly turquoise, for the Carnegie Hall sequence. Vicki Olson’s costumes for Jenkins, while stylish, vivid in their color palette and often wonderfully comic, do not sit well on Jolley. Guest director Richard Roland has paced Souvenir beautifully, giving equal weight to the comedic and the painful.
The New York production of Souvenir starred the glorious Judy Kaye as Jenkins, received laudatory notices… and ran a total of 68 performances. That is a third the length of the preview performances racked up by the nearly universally derided Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. There is something broken, perhaps irretrievably, in the system of theatre in its American capitol when a work as amusing, intelligent and humane as Souvenir can eke out only that brief a run while a gargantuan piece of pre-sold claptrap like Spiderman is still littering the boards.
Souvenir runs through Sunday, October 14. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.