All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The souvenir referred to in the title of Stephen Temperley’s affectionate and funny play is a recording by Florence Foster Jenkins, an independently wealthy socialite who became a novelty in New York for her grand, originally intimate, programs of classic music in concert.
The recording, like Temperley’s warm tribute, shows the flaw in Mrs. Foster Jenkins’s belief that she was preserving a taste for the great arias and magnificent vocal repertory by presenting them afresh, employing her alleged perfect pitch to sing Verdi, Johann Strauss, Gounod, in her pure, if florid, coloratura voice.
The problem was far from having perfect pitch, Florence Foster Jenkins was catastrophically tone deaf. She could not distinguish one note, key, or modulation from another and savagely, if genteelly, mangled every brilliant composition, whether Brahms or George Gershwin, she meticulously rehearsed with her loyal and overly solicitous accompanist, Cosmé McMoon.
McMoon’s name, an actual moniker and not an invention of Temperley’s, is hardly funnier than the concerts Foster Jenkins presented for more than a dozen years as a gracious way to display her vocal art while raising money for charity. Temperley, using McMoon as a narrator nostalgically and jaundicedly recalling his days at Foster Jenkins’s piano, describes people stuffing handkerchiefs in their mouths as a polite way to muffle laughter as Foster Jenkins invented new scales to accommodate her wildly random warbling. He tells of one concert at which Tallulah Bankhead had to be carried from the hall after giggling herself into catatonia.
The picture isn’t pretty. But it isn’t sad. In “Souvenir,” being given a delightful production starring April Woodall at Montgomery Theater, Temperley carefully shows how friends and regular attendees at Foster Jenkins’s soirees conspired to keep her from learning the truth about her voice, as did McMoon. Comedy comes not only from hearing Woodall launch gratingly into “The Laughing Song” from “Die Fledermaus” or the Queen of the Night’s tour de force from “The Magic Flute,” but from the congenial way people encourage her to perform in ever larger venues, and the myriad ways Foster Jenkins brushes off subtle, or even blatant, hints that she may not be achieving the perfection to which she aspires.
Pathos derives from the sincerity with which Foster Jenkins approaches her concerts and her total ignorance of both her pitch problems and her position as a joke among Manhattan’s smart set. You cringe in fearful sympathy any time you think Foster Jenkins is going to discover her folly or realize she is what she most dreads to be, a laughing stock. Like McMoon and the diva’s amused audience, you like, and maybe even admire, her so much, you want to protect her and keep her from the devastating hurt the truth would cause. What harm can it do to indulge a woman who means well but entertains in a way far different from her intention or belief? The way Foster Jenkins is sheltered by even the press of her performing days, 1932 to 1944, makes one long for the sophisticated and civilized agreement the folks of this bygone era made to remain silent and let Foster Jenkins have her amusement while her regulars had theirs, muffled as it may be. Imagine the denigration our kind, benighted heroine would suffer today. It would make the furor over Milli Vanilli look like a lovefest.
Temperley slyly lets you know everything that is germane about Foster Jenkins’s story. He covers the idea that she may be playing a trick on her friends or that her fractured renditions might be taken for parody. He presents opportunities by which Foster Jenkins can be jolted into harsh reality, e.g. a rare fit of honesty by McMoon or when she’s listening to one of her recordings. The overriding verdict is Foster Jenkins must have had a hearing problem that converted her caterwauling into celestial harmonies within her head. One wonders what her reaction was to Rosa Ponselle, or other divas assolutas of her time, when she heard them sing. Apparently, it’s only her own damaged shrieking Foster Jenkins mistakes for art. As presented by Temperley and played by Woodall, she seems to comprehend and appreciate well performed music for what it is.
Even when Temperley’s script repeats itself, it’s entertaining. So are April Woodall and Sonny Leo, as McMoon, as they perform the author’s taut, amusing gem under the keen direction of Tom Quinn for Montgomery.
For the most part, Quinn and company capture the spirit in which Temperley writes. Woodall can be convincingly fluttery or demanding, revealing Foster Jenkins’s vulnerability or showing her assured status in society and in life. Leo’s large eyes tell a lot as he reacts to Foster Jenkins’s doubts and denials. Leo’s style is that of a comedian, rather than as a jaded pianist or sophisticated man about town going along for a financially lucrative ride. He has smart timing in tossing off one-liners and the witty parts of McMoon’s stories. He also does a lovely version of “Violets for Your Furs,”
Both Woodall and Leo settle into their parts nicely. I had momentary trepidation at the beginning of the production that the jokey aspect of “Souvenir” was being pushed instead of being given the chance to emerge naturally, but my fears were quickly allayed as Leo turned from a narrator to a more dimensional character, and Woodall toned down an initial tendency to portray Foster Jenkins in a high, exaggerated, overarticulated voice that made one think of Margaret Dumont or someone imitating a stock grande dame.
Woodall more than sheds any semblance of pretentiousness or caricature. She establishes Florence Foster Jenkins as a generous woman who has abundant energy and depth of feeling. She plays the ironic aspects of the character beautifully and turns what looked liked affectation into affectionate quirks.
Woodall is a veritable whirlwind who involves you in Foster Jenkins’s enthusiasm for music. She wins your faith by being so earnest about keeping classical music current on the recital stage and by being so unshakably convinced her voice, and the range of feeling she can muster with it, are gifts it would unfair to share.
Woodall earns her laughs. Her Foster Jenkins is not so much in denial about reality as she is oblivious to it. There’s sweet irony in the innocent and sincere way she looks McMoon in the eye and says, with hints of amusements and pique, that she was constantly asked not to sing when she was a child and that people actually discouraged her ambitions for a career as a lyric soprano.
Woodall is deeply touching every time you think Foster Jenkins is about to learn the truth about her voice. She sloughs off any suggestion McMoon makes about her possibly not exactly hitting a particular note by explaining to him about interpretation and the way a singer must follow instincts when she is engulfed in the music and has no choice but to immerse herself in it. She accuses McMoon of not being frank with her about flaws, then quickly decides he isn’t withholding because she has no flaws. Concern for Foster Jenkins’s feeling s are quickly dispelled by the woman’s own confidence and unfailing ability to rationalize even the most obvious chink in her thick, thick armor.
Heartbreak does seem to come when it is clear to Foster Jenkins that she hears laughter during her piéce de resistance, “Ave Maria.” Here is where Leo comes forward as McMoon to lovingly reassure “Madame” that she is lauded and admired and that her performance, as always, was a triumph.
Woodall is wonderful is this sequence. She enters the room and fixes Cosmé is a cold, sad, hypnotic stare. Although beautifully dressed, she looks disheveled, her step halting and funereal, her energy sapped at a time you’d think she’d be bounding with exhilaration. You feel crushed to think that Foster Jenkins’s hopes are dashed and her psyche exposed to the horrible truth. Woodall appears that crestfallen, that defeated.
Leo’s McMoon makes a few remarks about an audience’s nervous energy and tells a partial truth when he speaks of Foster Jenkins’s monumental accomplishment, and with buoyancy to spare, Foster Jenkins recovers her spirit, Woodall blooming slowly as her character emerges from her torpor.
Just as telling, and moving, a scene of doubt comes after Foster Jenkins hears a proof pressing of her records and notices a flaw. She turns to McMoon with a look of anguish and says, “It’s not perfect. We’ll have to do it again.” McMoon is afraid Foster Jenkins has heard something that make its dawn on her she may not be the coloratura genius she purports to be. His instinct is to comfort Foster Jenkins, but he is halted in his friendly gesture when it becomes clear the diva blames him for the glitch and starts lecturing him on the importance of tempo.
McMoon loses control. He leashes into Foster Jenkins calling her a fraud and a silly woman, the latter comment cutting her the deepest. Woodall collapses in her chair. You’d expect her to be angry and defensive, but before she answers McMoon, she sits with a melancholy contemplative look, as is she has been wounded or come to a horrible conclusion.
It is a poignant moment, a genuinely serious beat in a show that has been played primarily and justifiably for comedy. You feel for Foster Jenkins at this instant and expect some kind of epiphany, perhaps a realization that McMoon’s angry assertions are valid, perhaps a confession she’s been fooling herself for many years.
The self-reflection is fleeting. Foster Jenkins recovers her poise, declares her hurt at being called ‘silly,’ and proceeds to be a peacemaker pointing out the dependency she and McMoon have on one another. Woodall makes some dramatic magic in this sequence, one that briefly changed the mood of the show without affecting the tone or the excellent pace Quinn sets for the production.
Performing Foster Jenkins’s numbers, Woodall plays it straight while being wonderfully comic. In her first aria, by Verdi, I thought she had missed the point of Temperley’s show. Her rendition was too scattered, quicker and more out of keeping with the meaning of her song than I thought Foster Jenkins would be. Minutes later, when she did a number by Mozart, I saw the right level of comedy, and Woodall’s performance took on genuine cast that continued for the duration of the production. She became Florence Foster Jenkins with the sense of fun and presentation that accompanied her allegedly definitive singing of the world’s most beautiful arias.
Woodall and Leo are the people you see, and Quinn does a fine job in guiding them, but Montgomery’s “Souvenir” has a major star in Mary Ann Swords-Greene, its costume designer. Gown after gown, dress after dress for Foster Jenkins was just right and a treat to behold. For one major concert, Foster Jenkins wears a different outfit for each number. Swords-Greene shrewdly mixes an array of formal dresses with a Spanish ensemble, a military uniform, a sea of plaids, an elaborate maid’s costume, and angel wings. Sharp wit and excellent needlework went into all of Swords-Greene’s creations. Her costumes often got a good time going, setting a comic tone before Woodall made a dramatic moue or uttered an errant note.
Sonny Leo is a caustic Cosmé, sort of like a guy telling a truly funny story to rapt, and sharp, listeners in a Manhattan bar. His relation of Foster Jenkins’s antics is droll and well-measured, those eyes I mentioned expressing a lot, especially in book scenes when Foster Jenkins surprises McMoon by tackling an especially difficult piece or by announcing she’s been invited to make a record or to sing at a major concert hall. One of his best reactions comes when Foster Jenkins tells Cosmé she is going to do him the honor of exposing his talent by singing a song he composed in her biggest concert ever.
Leo paces his narration well and has a musician’s sense of when to spring a zinger or express disbelief at something that happened.
McMoon has to endure a lot to remain Foster Jenkins’s partner in musical crime. His friends taunt him for agreeing to play for a dilettante whose singing does a disservice to music, especially if she believes she is advancing music’s cause. He also has to put his composing and concert career on hold to accommodate the “Madame.” McMoon rationalizes his decision to stay with Foster Jenkins by admitting he’s age 29 and that there’s only so long one can be “promising.” He also figures that the six months of the year he works for Foster Jenkins allows him a comfortable life with no worries about cash for rent or island trips with his latest boyfriend.
Of course, McMoon develops an authentic affection for Foster Jenkins, and Leo plays that devotion quite well. Except for when he’s provoked to tantrum, his McMoon always couches his criticism and backs down as much out of pity as to preserve his more than ample meal ticket.
Tom Quinn’s production is bright and comic while leaving room for honest emotion. Meghan Jones’s set is simple, just a piano, a comfortable chair, and a side table for Mrs. Foster Jenkins. It looks like the stage of a recital room more than a room in a home, but the impression of a performance space is more appropriate than a realistically posh room in an stylish Manhattan apartment would be.
Temperley’s script goes from side-splitting to sweetly melodramatic. It entertains constantly and smartly. The playwright is especially canny with his ending, a sequence that also seems de rigueur but takes on special meaning by the context Temperley, via McMoon, gives it.
“Souvenir” runs through Sunday, September 21 at Montgomery Theater, 124 Main Street, in Souderton, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. A 7:30 p.m. show is scheduled for Wednesday, September 10. A 3 p.m. show is set for Thursday, September 18. Tickets are $21 and can be obtained by calling 215-723-9984, extension 10, or by visiting www.montgomerytheater.org.