One of the more bizarre true stories from the annals of performance history concerns the case of the “opera diva” Florence Foster Jenkins. Born in Wilkes-Barre, PA in 1868, Jenkins embarked on a singing career in her forties after inheriting a fortune from her father. She quickly became infamous among a devoted following for her utter lack of musical ability – she not only sang off-pitch and without any regard to rhythm, but also had a voice described by Brooks Peters as sounding like “the shrill caw of an aging turkey buzzard.” Yet for nearly thirty years she gave a series of immensely popular, and highly profitable, performances, culminating in a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall from which nearly 2,000 fans were turned away.
The question of how the worst coloratura soprano in history could sustain the illusion that she was bestowing beautiful music on an admiring public is a fascinating one, and it is explored with humor, charm and poignancy in Stephen Temperley’s two person play Souvenir. Temperley gives the job of speculating about both Jenkins’ appeal and her sanity to her longtime accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Jeff Howell), whose own bafflement over her capacity for self-delusion eventually yields to a recognition of her genuine gift for making herself and others happy through her “musical” performances. The play traces the late stages of Jenkins’ (Jill Keating) career in flashback, beginning when McMoon is first engaged to accompany her at one of her private concerts in the ballroom of New York’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, and ending with her final famous public event at Carnegie Hall. In between, the play offers plenty of hilarity (mainly in the form of Jenkins’ god-awful singing, but also by way of McMoon’s sharp ability to tell her the truth in a way that allows her to hear what she wants to hear) in addition to moments of sober reflection about what constitutes talent. As a light and sympathetic portrait of one of American music history’s odder personalities, the play is extremely entertaining, but it does not dig very deep into the complexities and mysteries of its subject. In particular, it forgoes the opportunity to explore the extent to which the historical Jenkins might have consciously and performatively molded her career and image with the help of her manager (and lover), the British actor St. Clair Bayfield (who does not appear as a character in the play). That is, the play stacks the deck in favor of the verdict that she was a deluded lunatic, skirting any possibility that she might have (also?) been a savvy, early example of what today we’d call a “performance artist.”
Director Tomé Cousin has set the play in the intimate Studio space at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, a smart choice that allows the actors to work with more precision and nuance than they could in a larger venue. Although both characters lean a bit towards stereotype (he’s the underachieving closeted homosexual artist, she’s the daffy narcissistic rich lady), Howell and Keating resist the temptation to play it broad, giving us genuine, idiosyncratic humans rather than mere types. Keating is sweet and endearing as Jenkins, and she masterfully achieves the difficult feat of singing excruciatingly badly while conveying total conviction that she is knocking it out of the ballpark. Howell not only shines as a comic actor in his portrayal of the fey and sometimes catty McMoon, but as a vocalist and pianist as well. The fabulous costuming, by Cathleen Crocker-Perry, adds an historically-appropriate outrageous touch, particularly in the second act, when we get a mini-version of Jenkins’ famous last concert, in which she changed outfits for every song.