and enabled: (l-r) Corren and Kaye in Souvenir.
a Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
Stephen Temperley, Directed by Vivian Matalon
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through Sept. 3
Frankly, it didn’t sound enticing: a two-character play about
a socialite, Florence Foster Jenkins, who can’t sing, and
her piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon. Did anyone really want
to hear about the life and songs of a singularly untalented
“singer” as told by the pianist who played her for a handsome
income? The answer is a resounding yes In its pre-Broadway
engagement at the Berkshire Theater Festival, Souvenir
is an evening of near-constant laughter, peppered with piano
noodling and a pinch of poignancy to provide necessary respite
from the laughs.
Jenkins was a real person, and the events recounted in the
play are true. Out-of-tune, tin-eared, repellently pitched,
rhythmically unconscious, tonally unconscionable Jenkins was
a self-proclaimed coloratura soprano whose tonal colors ran
from fire-engine red to bilious green. She set the bar so
high for vocal incompetence that is barely possible to imagine
that such a creature could exist. That she did, and that she
achieved fame (or infamy) in sold-out public performances
at prestigious venues is astonishing.
So how bad, really, was her singing? Imagine a child’s first
attempt at the violin, the clawed feet of a live chicken being
dragged down a blackboard, tire rims skidding on concrete,
Betty Boop on steroids, an assault of adenoidal brats . .
. and then imagine the music of Mozart, Brahms and Gounod
being hopelessly played by any or all of the preceding.
Judy Kaye’s most remarkable achievement may be that she is
actually able to sing this badly and to reproduce Jenson’s
meanderings and munitions with such accuracy (doubters may
buy a CD of Jenson in the BTF gift shop)—without destroying
her voice. But Kaye’s accomplishment as an actress is just
as remarkable: She turns a Margaret Dumont-type into a real
character who is able to evoke sympathy and, even more surprising,
a modicum of empathy. Her eyes light with childlike delight
as she assumes she has mastered yet another aria or as she
marvels at how well she tosses a maraca from one hand to the
other. Her physical awkwardness is a thing to behold.
No less impressive is Donald Corren as Cosme, her initially
reluctant accompanist who becomes her eventual friend and
co-conspirator. Apart from Kaye’s vocal feats, his role may
be even more difficult. Onstage for the entire play, he deftly
coaxes tunes (classical and popular) from the piano and interrupts
himself with sharply timed observations. When he leaves the
piano and recounts anecdotes at more length, we are in the
thrall of a master storyteller.
It would seem that this is a one-joke comedy. But that one
joke is so completely outrageous and so fully explored that
its hilarity only increases as the central irony becomes more
dramatic. That playwright Stephen Temperley and director Vivian
Matalon are able to sustain it over the course of two sizable
acts is one of the more remarkable things I’ve seen in the