In case you have never heard of the famously tone-deaf diva Florence Foster Jenkins or have had the perverse pleasure of listening to her memorable album of classical arias, “The Glory of the Human Voice,” you had better prepare yourself. Jenkins’ voice remains forever as a testament to what the human ear should never have to endure. But in many ways her voice is also a testament to what the human spirit can aspire. “Souvenir,” the two-act play that Stephen Temperley has written about this self-deluded, self-indulged, and seriously misguided woman, is as conspicuously compassionate as it is courageously non-judgmental. I suspect that audiences will be fascinated and charmed by this “play with music” and its dramatic perspective.
Even if you are not prepared to hear notes that have not yet nor hopefully ever will find their way into our musical lexicon, you will certainly prick up your ears as the story behind them unfolds with touches of poignancy and humor. More importantly, Liz McCartney is quite marvelous as a prima donna in her own mind who would become both an object of affection and of ridicule to New York society in the late 1930s and 1940s. To McCartney’s credit, she is undertaking a role that has most recently been identified with Judy Kaye. The play originated at the Berkshire Theater Festival and had subsequent success Off Broadway at the York Theater. Although the play was moved to Broadway in 2005, it proved a little too special for mainstream audiences and closed after a short run.
“Souvenir” is, indeed, special in a special way. It supposes a reality that transcends our senses and our pre-conceived notions about art and artistry. For those who are willing to admire this wealthy, single-minded, but not simple-minded, coloratura as she pursues her dream to sing the classical operatic repertoire in public, it will prove quite an inspiration. This is the case, despite the gales of laughter that are provoked during the play.
The success of this George Street production (a New Jersey premiere), under Anders Cato’s on-key direction, can be attributed in part to McCartney’s brilliantly bad singing. Her acting is nothing to scoff at either. It may not be a coincidence that McCartney was sought for this challenging role as she has the required pipes, and has previously played the role of Rosie originated by Kaye in “Mamma Mia!”
“Souvenir” is a small, intimate play in which this somewhat loveable Park Avenue matron, who is completely oblivious to her lack of talent, finds that perfect someone, “a collaborator, a soul mate,” who will validate and support her through thick and thin, or should we say over the sharps and flats. It is Cosme McMoon, an accomplished pianist who is employed by Jenkins to “polish, perfect, and refine” her repertoire and also prepare her for a series of concerts that she is determined to give.
Jim Walton is terrific in the significant role of Cosme, a young composer of mainly art songs who becomes FFJ’s close friend and mostly very patient and accommodating accompanist for 12 years. Walton, who some of us will remember in the leading role of Franklin Shepard in the original company of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily we Roll Along,” as well as dancing and singing his way through a number of Broadway musicals including “42nd Street” and “The Music Man,” gives a performance that is sensitive yet direct, as it appears significantly propelled by a growing respect for the diva who was, evidently, herself propelled by something almost irrationally divine.
Despite Cosme’s initial shock when Jenkins lets out her first notes, he resigns himself to continue working with her mostly because he needs a job, but eventually because he gradually begins to understand her utter and complete devotion to the music. “Souvenir” is mainly Cosme’s story, as the play uses his memories of his unique relationship with FFJ some 20 years after her death, while playing piano in a New York supper club in 1964.
The play is at its best as Cosme resigns himself (“What was going on in her head?) to support Madam Flo’s determination to take on the formidable challenge. Cosme’s futile attempts to help Madame Flo hit the right notes are met defensively on one occasion with a retort, “I don’t understand the modern mania for accuracy.” Just as Madame Flo believed herself to be “a true coloratura,” Cosme would eventually come to admit, “I heard Rosa Ponselle, and I thought something was missing.” To be sure, hearing FFJ tackle the Mount Everest of arias, “Queen of the Night,” as well as “The Jewel Song” from Faust and “The Bell Song” from Lakme are calculated to put audiences into stitches. And they do.
Zaftig in form but radiant in face, McCartney conceptualizes the grandiosity of a society matron but also exudes warmth that all but melts your heart. Except for FFJ’s smart-looking, period-perfect haute couture, costume designer Tracy Christensen has gone all out to indulge her outre fantasies, especially in the famed Carnegie Hall concert during which the diva emerges most notably with angel wings attached to her white gown to sing the “Ave Maria.” You may be hard pressed to hold back your laughter, but you may also shed a tear, when she sings that hymn with the glorious voice that she hears in her head.
Set designer Karl Elgsti has created an elegant and flexible set that converts from FFJ’s music room in her suite at the Ritz Carlton to the stage and dressing room of Carnegie Hall and back to the New York supper club, where Cosme reminisces years after FFJ’s death. Here he delightfully plays the piano and wittily pays tribute to a woman who may have not have only aspired to a “purity of tone,” but, in her own mind, achieved it. Needless to say that the audience the night I attended was, as I, enraptured.
“Souvenir,” through Sunday, March 25, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $28 t0 $62. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.