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Enabler and enabled: (l-r) Corren and Kaye in Souvenir.

I, Diva
By Ralph Hammann

Souvenir: a Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins

By 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 theater.

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