Sometimes - but only sometimes - bad singing can be the sweetest music there is. For some of the most glorious awful tones you're likely to hear sung in a theater this year or in the foreseeable future, look no further than the York Theatre at St. Peter's, where the incomparable Judy Kaye is tackling what could easily be the most difficult role of her career: Florence Foster Jenkins.
If you've never heard of (or heard) Jenkins, you should be first in line to see Stephen Temperley's new play, Souvenir. Temperley, Kaye, and the show's director Vivian Matalon have conspired to present - in straightforward but hilarious theatrical style - the story of the life and work of one of the 20th century's most uniquely accomplished vocalists. And what they prove is that Jenkins, who could sell out Carnegie Hall as easily as her own private recitals, is the ideal role model for everyone who has ever been told they couldn't - or shouldn't - sing.
Because Jenkins couldn't, and probably shouldn't have. Not that it stopped her - when she died in 1944 at age 76, she had done exactly what she wanted and succeeded magnificently within her own special realm. Did she truly believe she was a perfect singer? Was she truly so tone deaf as to never note even slight vocal imperfections? Or could this all have been the most elaborate of practical jokes? It's impossible to know for sure. Regardless, Jenkins's oddball star quality, her giving nature (she donated the proceeds from her concerts to charity), and her terrible voice make her ideal for a musical bioplay of this nature.
Temperley explores all of Jenkins's contradictions, primarily through the eyes of her longtime accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Jack F. Lee). Cosme, a composer of limited success himself, narrates the show from a piano bar in 1969, recounting how he met, worked, and came to love and respect one of the most eccentric (if unlistenable) of modern musicians. Temperley's writing, though, holds few surprises - if you know Jenkins's story, you'll learn little new, and even if you're unfamiliar with it, you can chart the shape of the story and the relationship Jenkins and Cosme share.
The way Temperley intersperses Cosme's lengthy speeches with popular period tunes - often for minutes at a time - also grows stale quickly, and the framing device of the piano bar is not well integrated into the production. (It doesn't help that R. Michael Miller's set suggests more of a plush rehearsal room than a Greenwich Village dive.) And while Lee plays the piano expertly and affects agitation and frustration at the hopeless Jenkins well, his portrayal lacks depth and color, and he often seems to be reading his lines from pages placed strategically on the piano at which he almost always sits.
In the end, this matters little - the illusion is primarily Kaye's to peddle. And she sells it brilliantly, from her physical characterization of Jenkins's singing (often looking as though she's attempting to swallow - or pass - a grapefruit whole), to the tones she produces, which are roughly akin to sounds you might hear from a broken clothes dryer or a cat caught in a blender. She's utterly convincing as a woman with an almost unyielding optimistic attitude and complete devotion to her craft; combined with her almost unshakable self-confidence and Tracy Christensen's alternately gaudy, frumpy, and elegant costumes, Kaye's Jenkins is perfectly wacky, but when her assuredness flags in the wake of her Carnegie Hall debut, she breaks your heart as well.
This scene, in which she finally confronts Cosme, is the play's shakiest, feeling more like a capitulation to dramatic convention than a legitimate chapter in Jenkins's saga. Temperley far more effectively captures the woman in other spoken lines - "What matters most is the music you hear in your head," she says at one point; "You can only live on hope for so long" and "I heard Rosa Ponselle and something was missing," Cosme says at others. And with Kaye on hand to make the terrible-singing Jenkins more interesting that most of today's stars make their characters will singing perfectly, little extra character development is needed.
Still, the play is solidly entertaining and even inspiring in its sincere affection for a woman others loved to laugh at. There might be a lot to laugh about, but there's a lot to admire as well - Jenkins lived her life her way and utilized her one-of-a-kind talent on her own terms. For everyone who ever wanted to be great and fell short of the mark but still never gave up on their own impossible dreams, Souvenir is an intensely collectible - and memorable - show.
York Theatre Company