The name Florence Foster Jenkins probably holds little weight among serious opera fans. And who can blame them?
Although a success during her 12-year career in the 1930s and ’40s, the attention-starved soprano was unable to carry a note. However, she consistently drew sell-out crowds for her tone-deaf renditions of operatic standards from the likes of Brahms, Mozart and Strauss, among others.
Although her performances were viewed as a joke by her fans and peers, Jenkins was thoroughly convinced of her own greatness and approached each recital with poise and dutifulness.
“Souvenir,” which is playing at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, is a hysterical telling of this unlikely soprano’s rise to fame.
Cosme McMoon, Jenkins’ longtime accompanist and ardent supporter (if there ever was one), narrates her story from behind a piano. It’s 1964, 20 years since “Madame Flo’s” death from heart failure, and there’s the sense that his career has been in limbo for quite some time. He plays a few of her favorite numbers, but unlike his former boss, McMoon can hold a note. McMoon is reminiscent on this particular evening and recalls his first meeting with the woman who would soon turn all of New York’s high society on its head.
Flashback to 1932, and McMoon is summoned to New York’s prestigious Ritz-Carlton. It’s there that a wealthy woman with an “unusual” voice awaits. At first Jenkins seems like a pleasant old woman who has been blessed with a certain amount of confidence and security. “I have perfect pitch,” she tells McMoon, and I’m sure he was just as curious as the rest of us to see what she was capable of. Then she opens her mouth and well — awful is not a strong enough word to describe what comes out.
From there the play skips back and forth between her yearly recitals at the Ritz-Carlton, to her final performance at Carnegie Hall. As McMoon notes, Jenkins had a loyal and devoted following, but for all the wrong reasons. With her off-key vocals and eccentric costumes (she often dressed as the Statue of Liberty as a thank you to her fans in the armed services), Jenkins’ recitals were more spectacle than musical. Madame Flo may have been the butt of everyone’s jokes, but she never worried about her lack of talent. “What matters,” she tells the skeptical McMoon before their Carnegie Hall performance, “is what you hear in your head.”
Brent Schindele is magnificent as McMoon, and it’s a wonder how he manages to keep a straight face throughout all of his co-star’s well-timed one-liners.
“When I was a young woman my singing was actively discouraged,” Jenkins deadpans.
Then of course there’s Constance Hauman, an accomplished opera singer in her own right and seasoned actor to boot. Only a skilled vocalist could be terrible on command, and Hauman is about as good as bad can be. Of course she ultimately proves to have the pipes to belt out a number as difficult as “Ave Maria,” but by that time we’re all too expectant of her constant squawks to even acknowledge there’s a beautiful voice inside.
Still, Schindele and Hauman are an effective odd couple, good for plenty of laughs and well worth the price of admission.
Get in touch JAMES FAMERA has been a freelance play and book reviewer for more than five years.