nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 15, 2005
Souvenir, a play with music by Stephen Temperley, is subtitled "A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins." Now Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person (read this) who became famous for having no talent while apparently believing that she did. Specifically, though she was tone deaf and had no discernible sense of rhythm, she was convinced—or caused others to understand that she was convinced—that she was a brilliant coloratura soprano. In her middle and old age, she gave annual recitals and eventually made some records that were apparently quite the rage in some quarters for a while. In 1944, she appeared at Carnegie Hall, just a few months before she died at age 76.
Now what about this life—one that was completely unknown to me until Souvenir came along, and I'm pretty well-versed in the trivial far reaches of American entertainment history—made Temperley want to write a play? I think he's attracted to the quixotic gallantry of Mrs. Jenkins, at least as he's imagined her: though everybody else can see that she's a foolish and deluded old woman, she, like some Lady of La Mancha, dreams her impossible dream and reaches for her unreachable star. There is, to be sure, nobility in that; but I think for us to understand it requires some context: who is this woman? why is music so important to her? what, if anything does she do when she's not singing? Alas, Temperley tells us none of this; all we know of his heroine is that she tries to sing and can't and then tries to sing some more and can't some more. We can admire her stick-to-it-iveness but we don't really understand her; we don't get under her skin and into her heart.
So, intentions aside, what Temperley has actually created here is a monument to this sadly laughable lady that takes the shape, exactly, of a sadly laughable lady performing for us. Souvenir's structure goes like this: Cosme Mc Moon, the play's narrator and Mrs. Jenkins's accompanist and closest (only) collaborator for a dozen years, tells us some anecdotes about how badly she sang; and then Mrs. Jenkins turns up in a new costume and sings badly. In Act One, we're usually in the music room of her apartment at the Ritz-Carlton and so she wears tasteful suits and dresses. In Act Two, we're mostly at the 1944 Carnegie Hall concert, for which Mrs. Jenkins supposedly wore a different costume for every song, and so we're treated to a parade of outlandish creations that threaten, for better or worse, to upstage the caterwauling.
Which takes me to the main, and pretty much only, thing that I finally have to say about Souvenir, which is that rather than elevating Mrs. Jenkins to a kind of heroic eccentricity, it reduces her to a joke, and a mean-spirited one at that. I don't think I would have found the original Mrs. Jenkins funny for more than 30 seconds or so as she repeatedly hammered nails into the coffin of her talent, and I didn't find Judy Kaye, pretending to be Mrs. Jenkins, funny for much longer. When Lucille Ball pretended she couldn't sing on I Love Lucy, and screeched off-key in this or that outrageous get-up, she always wisely kept the joke fresh by keeping it brief. Two hours of bad singing isn't, or at least shouldn't be, anybody's idea of an entertaining evening.
If Kaye had an authentic character to create in Souvenir, well, then things might well be different. But, as I've already explained, she doesn't. And so she's stuck, straining her naturally fine voice to create awful sounds with it, and forced to play it reasonably straight (as opposed to the grand clowning that Lucy got to do) because we're supposed to somehow be empathizing with Mrs. Jenkins, even though she is, as depicted here, resolutely uninteresting and consequently impossible to care about.
Donald Corren, who plays Cosme, has a part equal in size to Kaye's, but also equally un-fleshed out. There are fleeting moments of conscience in some of his narration: should he have told her the truth? was he prostituting his talent by taking her money for a dozen years? But again, there's so little in the way of background that it's hard to form an opinion on these matters, or even to care very much.
The show does feature a nifty set by R. Michael Miller that alternates between the Greenwich Village lounge where the elder version of Cosme supposedly works (the main story is a flashback) and Mrs. Jenkins's ritzy digs. But the Lyceum, one of the smallest Broadway houses, is obviously too large for Souvenir, especially for the pixilated tribute that I think it wants in its heart of hearts to be. The heroism Mrs. Jenkins exhibited, if any, was of the very smallest kind: hers is a story of humanity not exalted but brought down right to lifesize. A more intimate venue might be more welcoming; a more full-hearted perspective might be, too.