William Congreve announced in 1670 that “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast,” but the playwright coined the now-famous (though often misquoted) phrase approximately 275 years before Florence Foster Jenkins started giving annual recitals that began at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom and culminated on October 22, 1944 with a Carnegie Hall appearance at age 76. Had the playwright heard Mrs. Jenkins, he’d certainly have had second thoughts about his dictum.
Jenkins, who died happy one month and a day after her Carnegie recital, was a society lady with a philanthropic heart. (Proceeeds of the recital went to the Red Cross and other charities.) She was also tone deaf, although she maintained that she had perfect pitch. Her soprano voice pierced the ear like a dentist’s drill. Listening to her, fans attuned to dark humor stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths to keep from laughing uproariously. At her death, she was a joke among the cognoscenti and was selling the record she’d cut to masses of perversely enthralled music lovers.
Anyone wanting to hear how the dippy diva sounded can hunt down a disc titled “The Glory of the Human Voice” or go online to sample her catastrophic caterwaul. Alternatively, they can attend Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir and hear Judy Kaye do a vocal impersonation that is, note for sour note, an astonishing replica of the lady. But those heading to their seats before the curtain rises on set designer R. Michael Miller’s version of the Jenkins music room may be in for a jolt.
Given the woman’s reputation, patrons likely will expect that they’re in for a non-stop comic assault on a rich buffoon. Temperley, a man with a heart as big as his subject’s, does indeed provide plenty of genuine laughs — many of them based on his offbeat heroine’s unconsciously ironic remarks about her warbling. But the temperate Temperley has something much more sympathetic to say in this “fantasia.” Instead of presenting Jenkins as a two-dimensional sight-and-sound gag, he depicts a full-bodied personality who believed in what she was doing. “Singing is a kind of dreaming in public,” she says at one point. Brooking no contradiction, she also declares, “I am not a silly woman!” Temperley has written a play that questions what constitutes self-delusion and whether, in some circumstances, it is an admirable trait. (Coincidentally, Peter Quilter’s play Glorious — also about Florence Foster Jenkins — opened in London on November 2, starring Maureen Lipman.)
Souvenir features narration by a man called Cosme McMoon (Donald Corren), who was Jenkins’ accomplice — er, accompanist. An aspiring art-song writer, McMoon was sucked into Jenkins’ gravitational field when in his late twenties, but he recalls his (mis-)adventures from a piano bar in 1964. Interrupting renditions of such evergreens as “Stardust,” “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” and “Violets for Your Furs,” all of which are tangentially pertinent, he describes modifying his attitude towards his employer over the years. “As time went by,” he says, “I moved beyond admiration and began to wonder if she wasn’t some kind of genius.”
Audiences will laugh so hard at all this that they cry, but they may ultimately shed tears for other reasons. This is a testament to Jenkins and to Judy Kaye’s masterful performance. When Souvenir opened at the York Theatre last December, I highly praised Kaye and noted that, “clad in some extremely stylish costumes by Tracy Christensen, she embodies the woman’s sincerity.” There’s no reason to change that view, other than to say Kaye may now be going somewhat overboard in the early scenes. Nonetheless, she’s so wonderful that early Tony Award handicappers had better take her into serious consideration. (Costumer Christensen, working with a bigger budget, is even wittier now as Jenkins romps through her Carnegie Hall wardrobe changes. Bravo also to Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting and to David Budries’ all-important sound design.)
Directed with sophistication and compassion by Vivian Matalon, Souvenir is startlingly improved since its Off-Broadway incarnation at the York Theater. What was then a one-woman show has become a delicately balanced two-hander thanks to the presence of Donald Corren. While Broadway conductor Jack F. Lee was competent at the York, Corren excels at playing the sort of raconteur whose glass tip bowl habitually brims with dollar bills. As animated as Kaye, and looking not unlike Leonard Bernstein, he takes what could be an also-ran part and demonstrates that Temperley has written a helluva sharp two-for-the-seesaw play.