A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
Sounvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins A New Play with Music by Stephen Temperley. Directed by Vivian Matalon. Scenic designer R. Michael Miller. Costume designer Tracy Christensen. Lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson. Sound designer David Budries. Musical supervision Tom Helm. Cast: Judy Kaye, also starring Donald Corren.
Forget about Cherry Jones, Victoria Clark, or Christina Applegate - no one would accuse them of slacking their ways through their starring roles in Doubt, The Light in the Piazza, and Sweet Charity respectively, but their jobs are now small potatoes. The new hardest-working actress on Broadway is unquestionably Judy Kaye.
The Tony winner (for The Phantom of the Opera) is tackling the role of her career - and possibly the greatest challenge of her life - in Stephen Temperley's Souvenir, which just opened at the Lyceum. It's a task that would strike fear in the throats of even the most daring doyennes of vocal production: She must set aside all that's helped her attain one of Broadway's most exquisite, awesome voices, and inhabit the shaky body and even shakier vocal cords of the possessor of one of the 20th century's most exquisitely awful voices, Florence Foster Jenkins.
And the sound she must produce? Imagine the breaks of a car being frantically applied at the last possible moment to avoid running over a cat. Or, for that matter, imagine the sound the cat makes while getting run over. These aren't pear-shaped tones, or tones of any shape whatsoever. Like the screeches produced by an inept first-time violinist, they're formless, evanescent approximations of sound with the same relationship to music that unlucky swimmers have with great white sharks.
Yet the ease with which Kaye embodies Jenkins appears so effortless that one can only conclude she's all but killing herself onstage. And does her hard work pay off: She finds such endearing, grandmotherly charm in the woman, who donated to charity the proceeds from her recitals and her now-legendary Carnegie Hall concert, that no aural assault can make you hate this woman. You'll undoubtedly question her ability, and you might well question her sanity, but Kaye makes it always obvious that her heart was in the right place.
While that's sufficient for an actress playing a role, it's not enough for the playwright crafting the show around her. Since Souvenir first opened at the York Theatre Company last December, Temperley and director Vivian Matalon have lightly trimmed and moderately clarified the play: There's now an even richer sense of familial codependence between Jenkins and her accompanist, the disgruntled composer Cosme McMoon, played here by Donald Corren. The relationship between the two, while central to understanding and eventually appreciating Jenkins's mania, is also the source of the show's warmest humor and its not inconsiderable heart.
What has not happened in the last year is a softening of the show's egregiously episodic nature, a smoothing over of dramatic edges as rough as those in Jenkins's voice. Jenkins engages Cosme's services, horrifies him (and us) with her voice and sterling lack of musicianship, and plans her first public recital. Once that's finished, she's offered a recording deal, leading to more heartache and heartburn for both of them; this sends the show into intermission. The second act deals almost exclusively with preparations for the pinnacle of her careening career, her Carnegie Hall concert, and its unfortunate aftermath.
But aside from Cosme's narration, most of which is delivered while sitting on a piano bench on the 20th anniversary of Jenkins's 1944 death, nothing allows these moments to feel like part of a more fluid framework. Off-Broadway, the show had the informality of cocktail-party entertainment, so you could excuse occasional structural lapses; in a Broadway theater as grand as the Lyceum, the line between inchoate and incoherent blurs even more.
True, the play is subtitled "A fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins," so Temperley's allowed some license. But Matalon's direction, firmly grounded in the realistic mode, doesn't aid in our assimilating the transitions between the present and the past. And Temperley's airy writing hits little more than the expected emotional buttons, leaving you spending too much time waiting for the next one to arrive: How long until Cosme blows up at her, and tells her how bad she really is? How long until she hears what she really sounds like? And so on.
To his credit, Temperley tempers his fastidious fulfillment of these expectations with more than the requisite number of insightful ponderings: Can dedication and persistence trump precision and approximate honest musicality in a true no-talent? Is playing Carnegie Hall less of an achievement if the audience is there to make fun of you? Is doing what brings you joy - and, after a fashion, brings others joy - more important than being good at it? Determining how you perceive and answer these questions is an integral part of the Souvenir experience.
Some of the other elements are a bit more questionable: R. Michael Miller's velvety, blue-and-ivory music-room set doesn't seem completely right for either Cosme's 1964 Greenwich Village haunt or the Ritz music room in which he and Jenkins held court; Ann G. Wrightson's lighting could do more to transport us between the world that is and the world that maybe was.
But Tracy Christensen's costumes, which include a number of elegantly frumpy frocks for the everyday Jenkins, and a procession of increasingly outlandish getups for the Carnegie Hall sequence (including a Technicolor military uniform and an angel costume), are deliciously decadent creations. And Corren, infinitely more secure in his role than its originator, Jack F. Lee, impresses with his impassioned piano playing and cutting comic flair, though he occasionally overexaggerates Cosme's exasperation with his larger-than-life benefactor.
That's never a problem with Kaye, who instinctively knows how to portray Jenkins's tragic self-delusion without going over the top. While the tightrope she walks is sometimes particularly precarious - watch her wield that maraca like a Whack-a-Mole mallet! - she never loses her footing or her grip on our sympathies. She allows us to find in ourselves an analogue of the real Jenkins's audiences: We too desperately want her to fail, but on some level we also want her to succeed, though we know she never will.
Does she? That, like so much else, is open to interpretation. "What matters most is the music you hear in your head," Jenkins opines at one point. Maybe. But leave it to Kaye to make the music Jenkins hears ring so beautifully in our ears as well.