Perhaps it was a more genteel time back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The salon audiences for whom Florence Foster Jenkins performed stifled their laughter and applauded their support. They were a patrician bunch. Cole Porter never missed her Ritz ballroom concerts.
The consensus is that Mme. Jenkins was wildly deluded, her lack of musical awareness probably aggravated by the syphilis she contracted as a teen. Thanks to a comfortable inheritance, she became a society dowager and indulged her passion for music with a voice so dreadful that those who heard her live swore that the handful of recordings she left behind barely do justice to the awfulness of the experience.
Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir is subtitled A Fantasia, and the playwright uses the facts of the woman’s life to imagine what might have driven her to inflict her unique performing style upon her friends – and, eventually, to a gloriously sold-out night at Carnegie Hall.
But even more compelling is the story of the pianist she worked with, Cosme McMoon. We meet him in the 1960s. He’s playing cocktail piano, and welcomes us with the greatest of all saloon songs, “One for My Baby.”
“You can never hear what other people hear,” he tells us between stanzas, preparing us for the meeting that will change his life. As McMoon, Jay Kerr brings the triple-threat talents of actor, singer, and pianist to the role: entirely convincing as a nightclub chanteur, he then inhabits his forty-years-younger self, revealing an ambitious but cautious young man who needs money but has a calling to pursue.
It’s 1927. The 24-year-old McMoon visits the 16th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to audition for the eccentric Foster Jenkins, who proves to be completely disarming in an overbearing way.
“What matters most is the music you hear in your head,” she declares, noting how difficult it is “to find an accompanist on one’s own level.” Alison Davy plays the singer with a giddy energy that makes her so endearing that it’s a shock when she launches into “Caro nome.” It’s not just that she sings wildly off key and with only the slightest sense of rhythm: there also are the pig-squeal timbre and mad facial tics to enhance the unpleasantness. Difficult as it is to sing well, it’s even tougher for a terrific singer to sing badly on purpose, and Davy does it with truly admirable awfulness.
As McMoon attempts to school the fluttery diva, we see in Kerr’s face a mixture of frustration and awe – the latter because he’s on the cusp of deciding whether he can work with her, and sensing its inevitability.
With the song “Crazy Rhythm” as a link between McMoon’s reminiscences and the scenes he’s recalling, we get to the poignant heart of the piece. It’s a love story in every way but the conventional. A shared love of music brings these two together, and the relationship finds the much-younger pianist passing through shame into protective fondness, and finally into an emotionally fraught partnership. Even as Kerr is able to lob one-liners at us with sculpted precision.
The second act begins well, deepening the insights into their relationship. “Maybe I’m no better than she is,” McMoon speculates, adding with wonder, “She never had any doubts.”
But a crisis approaches: She has booked that Carnegie Hall recital. “Her folly was so stupendous that you had to admire its scale,” declares her reluctant partner, justifiably worried that this event will open her to the ridicule she’s otherwise avoided.
Temperley’s script reaches an impasse here. To deny us highlights of that recital would be a let-down, yet the examples we see are so absurd, complete with the singer’s absurd changes of costume, that we lose the sympathy that was so carefully nurtured and are forced to join the crowd in jeering at her – although Davy never flags in her character’s self-assurance.
If anything, she’s too affable. I would like to have seen more aristocratic dignity about her; after all, she’s seducing McMoon with money, not talent. But the relationship, in the hands of these fine actors, is always credible – and Davy gets a golden moment at the end of the piece when we’re allowed to hear what Florence Foster Jenkins must have heard in her head, and Gounod’s “Ave Maria” never sounded so good.
It’s another Bridge Street Theatre success (co-produced with Kerr’s Fort Salem Theater), with skilled direction by Florence Hayle and a versatile set by John Sowle. Souvenir is one of a number of plays (and, of course, a movie) focusing on the career of this nonpareil, and it’s the best of them.
Souvenir, Bridge Street Theatre, Catskill, through March 26
Photo by John Sowle