A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
By Stephen Temperley
Starring Donald Corren and Judy Kaye
Directed by Vivian Matalon
American Conservatory Theater
February 18-March 15, 2009
Judy Kaye as Florence Foster Jenkins.
Photo by Ashley Forrette. www.ashleyforrette.com
There ain’t nothin’ like a deluded diva. The life story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the tone deaf Manhattan socialite who dreamed of a career on the concert stage would be incredible, if it was not utterly true; tragic if it was not so hilarious. Enter playwright Stephen Temperley who, has crafted the tale into a gentle, loving memoir told from the viewpoint of Jenkins’ accompanist, Cosme McMoon. The result, “Souvenir: a Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” has played Broadway, Los Angeles and the Berkshires, among other venues and now comes to San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater with the original cast intact. A star vehicle for the fabulous Judy Kaye (“Sweeney Todd”), who garnered a 2006 Tony nomination for the role, the show nevertheless rests on the shoulders of Donald Corren, the urbane pianist-raconteur who punctuates his memories with snatches of popular song. And his shoulders are broad enough to carry it.
Florence Foster Jenkins was born in 1868 into a wealthy Pennsylvania family. She had everything – wealth, position and an intense love of music. Everything, that is, but a voice. That’s too bad because all she really wanted to do was sing. She learned to play the piano quite well but her family refused to allow her to take singing lessons, probably for her own protection. In 1928, after a failed marriage and the death of her parents, she burst like a comet on the Manhattan musical firmament with a series of invitation-only recitals at the prestige Ritz Carlton hotel, self-financed with her hefty inheritance and attended by the cream of New York society, friends like Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead, who complimented and encouraged her while stuffing handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle their laughter and, when that didn’t work, bursting into applause to cover the sound of giggles and guffaws.
The recitals multiplied after she took on McMoon, a “starving artist” with an uncanny ability to keep a straight face when his boss was onstage. They worked together for 12 years and forged an intense bond (not sexual as McMoon – at least as portrayed here – was gay and Jenkins was the longtime common-law wife of a handsome actor, 16 years her junior). They actually cut a few records -- collector’s items then and now. Jenkins became a cause celebre. The whole thing culminated in a sold-out Carnegie Hall recital (with 2,000 would-be ticket buyers reportedly turned away) during which she danced, sang and changed costumes (here by Tracey Christensen) for almost every number. There was pandemonium in the hall and condemnation in the press. A month later, Mme. Jenkins, as she preferred to be called, suffered a fatal heart attack. She was 76.
All of this is lovingly related by Corren, who sits at the piano with a drink and a rueful smile as he relates his own not inconsiderable part in the saga. Michael Miller’s set, a stunning, spare art deco room with high windows framing the Manhattan skyline is the perfect backdrop for this sophisticated repartee. The actor has charm to spare and he is a joy to watch; he also has a pleasant voice, nice to listen to. Not so Kaye (actually a fine singing actress when she is not in this character) who screeches and trills off-key through a number of well-known operatic arias. It’s funny but, depending on your love of opera, painful to listen to. When her frustrated accompanist tries to get her to stick to the score she gently tells him “The notes are only signposts left by the composer to guide us” and blithely continues down her own off-key path.
“Come on, she couldn’t have been that bad,” the critic says to her companion. “Actually she was,” he responds. “I’ve heard her records.”
Kaye, a deft comic actress, hams it up plenty but keeps Jenkins from becoming a total caricature by investing her with a genuine humanity. This is someone who had a dream and pursued it no matter what anybody said. Along with the pianist, we come to admire her in spite of ourselves. As Cosme says: “Her folly was so stupendous, how could you not?” She heard the music in her head and that’s the way she sang it, for better or worse. She believed in the music and she believed in herself and, until the fateful night at Carnegie Hall, never doubted her own abilities.
For that, if nothing else, she deserves some respect. And playwright Temperley gives it to her at the very end. The final moments of the show are an homage as Kaye comes out and sings Gounod’s “Ave Maria” – a perennial Jenkins encore – beautifully, in her own voice. A little mawkish maybe, but a nice tribute to the lady with more guts than voice.