note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi
Cosme McMoon … Donald Corren
Florence Foster Jenkins … Judy Kaye
SOUVENIR is Stephen Temperley’s fantasia on the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), the American socialite-turned-soprano who achieved cult status by having no musical ability whatsoever (her handful of recordings, now preserved on two CD collections, provide ample testimony). Accompanied by her pianist who performed under the pseudonym Cosme McMoon, Madame Jenkins’ recitals, beginning at private functions and culminating at Carnegie Hall shortly before her death, drew enthusiastic crowds who were entertained by her ineptitude rather than her self-proclaimed artistry yet Madame Jenkins seems to have been oblivious at being the butt of her own joke. Narrated by Mr. McMoon, SOUVENIR celebrates their collaboration from beginning to end with the man coming to respect and even admire his patroness’ staggering lack of talent; the humor runs along the lines of “I’ve been told no one else can sing the way I do” and the evening concludes with a clever, lovely epiphany. SOUVENIR is entertaining fare but neither deep nor profound; as written and performed, it is an extended vaudeville sketch and a one-note sketch, at that.
Last December I saw the original off-Broadway production with the Tony-winning Judy Kaye as Madame Jenkins; Ms. Kaye continues in the role at the Berkshire Theatre Festival en route to bringing SOUVENIR back to Broadway, proper. The off-Broadway production was hampered by its Mr. McMoon --- the role allows a senior actor/pianist to play Mr. McMoon circa 1969 and then to step back into time, as is; since he serves as narrator, accompanist and wise man to a happy fool, a subtle, multi-faceted actor is needed. The original actor’s timing was off, he delivered his lines in a blustery monotone and on the afternoon I attended he had his speeches attached to his piano scores for reference --- instead of a performance, the actor gave a reading and Ms. Kaye and director Vivian Matalon had to make do around him. The current Berkshire production is more evenly balanced, with some trade-offs: Mr. Temperley has revised and padded Madame Jenkin’s Carnegie montage which becomes too much of a good thing and Ms. Matalon has encouraged Ms. Kaye and Donald Corren, her new Mr. McMoon, to underline SOUVENIR’s double-entendres so that they are practically speaking in code. On the plus side, thanks to Mr. Corren, Mr. McMoon’s sole eruption now has a fist-like power that it previously lacked and Mr. Corren, unlike his predecessor, makes quite clear in Act Two that as long as Madame Jenkins performs in private, she is safe; when she takes on Carnegie Hall, she leaves herself open to ridicule. Mr. Corren nicely balances the polite, perhaps closeted, reserve of Mr. McMoon’s youth with the suave flamboyance of later maturity; if I’ve a nitpik, it would be that Mr. Corren’s reactions to Madame Jenkins’ singing and performing are out-and-out mugging --- if the pair performed together for twelve years, would Mr. McMoon still react this OMG-way by the end of their collaboration? “Anything for a larf” seems to be Ms. Matalon’s motto.
Casting the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, all sugar and lemon, is tricky. A non-singer would draw uneasy laughter from her audience and lack the stamina to pull off a lengthy run. A trained singer in one field of music taking on another could be an acceptable compromise but what soprano would want to risk (a) ruining her instrument and (b) being dismissed as a bad singer, herself? An opera singer, or one who can sail through today’s anthem-heavy musicals, is the wisest choice --- provided she can convince her audience that she cannot sing. Judy Kaye proves that she can definitely sing and quite cleverly, too, and being in on the joke plays Madame Jenkins as a nouveau-riche vulgarian instead of a society lady stepping down to become a deluded priestess of song. Ms. Kaye has done an impressive amount of homework: all of her sour notes and shrieks and gasps are securely in place and consistent in their execution but she has left out the subtlety and shading that would allow her sounds to take on their own weird beauty; when called upon to be touching, Ms. Kaye is so far up to her neck in Camp that her Big Moments tremble with bathos. Ms. Kaye is a lot of fun, though, doing what she is currently doing, and those who come to SOUVENIR to laugh at her clowning will get their money’s worth but they won’t see the noble, quixotic soprano that Mr. McMoon describes. No matter how terrible Madame Jenkins sounds in her recordings, she always kept her dignity which was the secret of her unintended hilarity.