Judy Kaye in Souvenir(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Judy Kaye in Souvenir
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
In the old joke that goes "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, kid, practice," the implication is that practice leads to improvement. This wasn't so in the instance of self-proclaimed soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, who gave her only Carnegie Hall recital on October 25, 1944 at the age of 76 and died a month later.

A wealthy woman with perhaps the grandest delusions of the 20th century, Jenkins built her reputation (!!) by giving annual concerts for her society friends at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom and using the proceeds to support young artists. She was both beloved and berated: While acknowledging that Jenkins was obviously having a great time performing, reviewers vied to describe her execrable voice and her inability to locate pitch or tempo when wrestling some of opera's most famous and most difficult arias to the ground. One critic wrote, "She sounds like a cuckoo in its cups," while another labeled her a "bel-canto banshee." But no written words could evoke the excruciating sounds that she made, which drove attendees into raucous laughter or, hoping to spare Jenkins' feelings, to stuff handkerchiefs into their mouths.

So the mere announcement of Souvenir, Stephen Temperley's play with music about Jenkins, sounds like the latest in the jokes about the infamous diva. Those abundant gags have only begun to fade in the most recent decades as the ranks of Jenkins fans have thinned. But Temperley, who doesn't miss the humor in his subject's life and amateur career, has a big surprise in store. Of course he appreciates the stocky and staunch Jenkins as a figure of fun, but he also uses her story as an opportunity to examine the complex question of self-delusion. After all, Jenkins may have been something of a fool, but a fool of whom another critic observed: "She was exceedingly happy in her work. It's a pity so few artists are."

In Temperley's version, Jenkins (Judy Kaye) is recalled by her accompanist, the exquisitely named Cosme McMoon (Jack F. Lee), from his piano bench at a bar in the late '60s. Interrupting his own renditions of standards, McMoon recalls how he was summoned to Jenkins' swanky apartment for an initial interview and how, though he attempted to reject the offer, he was drawn into her employ. At first appalled at Jenkins' confidence yet searching for polite words in which to express his disapproval of her singing, McMoon slowly begins to regard the woman in a kindlier light. He's impressed by her generosity and lack of affectation. Eventually, he reaches the point where he says, "I heard Rosa Ponselle and something was missing." By the time he's approaching the end of his discourse, he's giving Jenkins the benefit of many doubts and suggesting that, perhaps, true art is what would-be artists experience in their heads.

With that possibility mooted, Temperley -- who calls his piece a "fantasia" -- may step over the line from heartfelt sentiment to sentimentality. He definitely doesn't resist sentimentality at another late moment in his tenderly constructed two-hander. When he finally gets Jenkins onto the Carnegie Hall stage in the angel's wings and mantilla that she wore for different numbers, he depicts the acclaimed caterwauler realizing for the first time that the cacophonous response to her mincemeat "Ave Maria" is derisive laughter and not adoration. Afterward, McMoon -- now protective of Jenkins -- has to assure her that the audience was completely enthusiastic. In actuality, most Jenkins authorities (including the real McMoon) believe that Jenkins never doubted her talent; she meant every word when she compared her performance of the "Bell Song" from Lakmé to Ponselle's. (Incidentally: There are those who say that Cosme McMoon was an alias for Edwin McArthur, who accompanied Kirsten Flagstad under his real name, but I couldn't find confirmation of this theory.)

Jack F. Lee and Judy Kaye in Souvenir(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Jack F. Lee and Judy Kaye in Souvenir
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Temperley's view of Jenkins is made manifest by Judy Kaye. (Jenkins' drawing room is made sketchily manifest by set designer R. Michael Miller under Ann G. Wrightson's lighting.) Kaye, who likely has heretofore never sung a flat or sharp note in her life, here has the task of singing like a cat being tortured by a dog. She comes through with what could be called properly drooping colors. Her renditions are almost as horrendous as Jenkins', which makes them simultaneously hilarious and ear-offending. She gets the chance to butcher many of the diva's signature tunes, including "Adele's Laughing Song" from Die Fledermaus. However, in the sequence where Jenkins listens to the first recording she's ever made, it's not Kaye singing; it's the real Florence Foster Jenkins!

Kaye's portrayal of Jenkins when not singing is also immaculate. Clad in some extremely stylish costumes by Tracy Christensen, she embodies the woman's sincerity. Under Vivian Matalon's compassionate direction, she's an immeasurable asset in achieving the three-dimensional portrait of a woman who's remembered now -- by those who remember her at all -- as a grade-A laughingstock. Jack F. Lee's Cosme McMoon also assists in giving Jenkins her due as a kind and generous woman with an enormous blind spot. Lee, who has conducted more Broadway musicals than you can shake a baton at, isn't a finished actor, but he feels Cosme's developing concern for Jenkins and conveys it.

Temperley is to be commended for his appreciation of Jenkins, and he deserves added praise for the final twist of Souvenir. That twist won't be revealed here, but it's a moving reminder that an individual's dreams are sometimes worth applauding even if seemingly foolish. Bravo Temperley -- and a belated brava for Florence Foster Jenkins.