“Souvenir,” a thought- provoking and entertaining comedy-drama by Stephen Temperley, is almost too far-fetched to believe.
Would a rich New York society lady risk ridicule by performing operatic music recitals at Carnegie Hall despite the fact that she sings – and this is no exaggeration – like a drunken tomcat at midnight?
Yet then we remember: This is based on a true story, and Florence Foster Jenkins did exist. She truly did lack all sense of pitch, tone, rhythm and taste. People actually did go to her concerts in the 1930s and 1940s just to laugh.
Director Michael Weaver of ARt pulls this show off with professional aplomb. Its casting requirements would be enough to make most theaters give up. First of all, you must find a lead actress who can caterwaul entertainingly for minutes at a time and never, ever find the correct pitch. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Yet she must also be able to, when called upon, sing, and sing beautifully. Karen Nelsen, as Florence Foster Jenkins, is that person.
Even more difficult, you must find a male actor to play the only other role: that of accompanist Cosme McMoon, who has cabaret-quality piano and vocal skills. Mark Rabe, a terrific Seattle actor and musician, is that person.
Rabe effortlessly handles all of the operatic accompaniment on the piano, which dominates the simple music-room set. He is also an excellent singer, showing off such jaunty tunes as “Crazy Rhythm,” which the diva Jenkins dismisses as “that jazz music.”
Rabe, as McMoon, is truly the play’s backbone. Temperley sets up the story as a theatrical memoir, in which McMoon comes onstage, sits at the piano, and tells the audience the story of his years with Jenkins. He shakes his head as if he can barely believe the story either. Before long, he summons up Jenkins herself, who shimmers in almost like a ghost from his memory.
And then she opens her mouth. Oh, she’s real, all right.
Nelsen’s vocal delivery is a cross between Tiny Tim and the worst drunk at karaoke night. She also captures Jenkins’ sense of entitled eccentricity as she declaims grandly that great art comes from the heart. In other words, if she gets the “feeling” right, that’s good enough.
McMoon spends a lot of the first act explaining that, actually, it’s not good enough. A note, he explains, has an exact value. A singer can’t just wander around the neighborhood of a note.
The script’s weakness, although not a fatal one by any means, is that the characters are drawn as one-note creations. Rabe is forced to exhibit various forms of polite exasperation in almost every scene. Nelsen must play the dizzy eccentric, with the wild eyes, the grand gestures and the quivering chin.
Yet the play deepens in the second act. Weaver and his actors explore some intriguing questions: Is laughing at Jenkins good clean fun or is it cruelty? Is McMoon an accomplice in this cruelty?
The even more intriguing questions come at the end. Is there anything wrong with deluding yourself about your artistic gifts? Is it possible that there is a certain nobility in Jenkins’ artistic aspirations? Isn’t it better than having no aspirations at all?
These questions come to a head in a moving finale, staged with hushed power by Weaver. Jenkins comes on stage and sings not what her audience hears, but what she herself hears: a pitch-perfect version of Ave Maria.
Finally, I should point out that Spokane had its own version of Florence Foster Jenkins a decade or so ago. An elderly woman rented The Met (now the Bing Crosby Theatre) and sold tickets to a “scintillating evening” of piano music. Seven showed up; it soon became clear she was badly out of practice, repeated some tunes two or three times and often got confused about what she was playing. Five walked out at intermission. Two of us stayed until the end and gave a round of applause as we got up to leave.
When I saw her the next day, she beamed and said, “You know, they gave me a standing ovation.”