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Souvenir

Souvenir hits the right note — even if its heroine can't

If any playwright had written a character remotely like singing New York society matron Florence Foster Jenkins, no one would believe it. Yet Madame Jenkins did exist, beggaring all description — imagine grande dame Margaret Dumont from those Marx Brothers movies wailing a Verdi aria, and you'd be halfway there. Writer Stephen Temperley has glorified her onstage in Souvenir, his warm, hilarious tribute to Miss Flo, whom Time magazine's 1944 obit called the "billowing ­coloratura."

Madame Jenkins has been known to the opera cognoscenti and the party-record crowd for decades, mainly from the reissue of her recordings from the '40s, wherein she tramples beloved arias and art songs with the refinement of a stevedore and the musical phrasing of Jack the Ripper. It would be charity to say that she was the worst singer in the world. Yet, believe it or not, her annual recitals in New York at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom, as well as her twice yearly concerts at Sherry's supper club, were sellouts. Police had to be called in to manage the overflow crowds.

The diva and her long-suffering pianist: Nancy Johnston and Philip Lehl.
Bruce Bennett
The diva and her long-suffering pianist: Nancy Johnston and Philip Lehl.

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Through September 23. $26-$36.
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

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Derisive laughter, of course, followed her every appearance, but Madame Jenkins brushed this aside with a true diva's disdain, calling her detractors hoodlums or spiteful, jealous enemies. She had an unvarnished desire, an almost magnanimous talent, to please. She gave her audience a show — with outrageous costumes she designed herself for each musical selection and a veritable botanical garden onstage to set the festive mood. Accompanied by her dear and patient friend, the concert pianist Cosme McMoon, she yodeled her way through Mozart's treacherous "Der Hölle Rache," guffawed through Johann Strauss's sparkling "Laughing Song," whooped through Gounod's lilting "Jewel Song" and clanged through Delibes's "Bell Song." It was all greeted by uproarious, if stupefied, applause and acclaim.

As the stunning apex to her amateur career, she played Carnegie Hall for a once-in-a-lifetime recital in 1944 and sold out all tickets in a matter of hours. Standees wrapped around the block, hoping to get in. She was 76 when she wowed that prestigious audience, regaling them with encore after encore, to cacophonous bravos, whistles and deafening applause. It was her last hurrah, and final triumph — she had a fatal heart attack one month later. For what it's worth, every major New York City newspaper carried her obit.

Author Temperley documents Madame Jenkins's career as witnessed by McMoon (Philip Lehl), whom we first meet as a washed-up cocktail pianist whose better days are long behind him. He plays with one hand while he chugs his drink. "I'm just down, not suicidal." But we don't believe him. He brightens considerably when he plays a tune "for her," and we're swirled back in time to when he was a struggling musician who auditions to be Jenkins's accompanist for her first public recital. La Jenkins (Nancy Johnston) swoops into her apartment, a vision in aubergine, and beguiles McMoon with her lofty hopes for a colleague, a collaborator, a soul mate. They begin rehearsing Verdi's sumptuous "Caro Nome." If there were birds in the theater, they'd fall dead out of the rafters. Jenkins has a tin ear the size of Maryland, and with perfect comic astonishment tinged with horror, Lehl asks us, "What was she hearing in her head?"

Singing between the notes, Johnston caterwauls sublimely, just like Jenkins. Supremely unaware of her voice's ill effect, Jenkins defends herself with pronouncements on the "modern mania for accuracy" and how we must allow for some "latitude from the heart." McMoon stares openmouthed — what in the hell has he gotten himself into? — but he needs the money. Maybe, just maybe, he can teach her, or at the least limit the damage. He stays for 12 years.

From then on, it's a comic battle of wills, as McMoon attempts to inject some semblance of musicality into the tone-deaf Jenkins. The point of the show is that eventually, inevitably, Jenkins ends up teaching McMoon — about courage, confidence and the nobility of being genuine. McMoon comes to admire her folly, which is so stupendous, you have to marvel at it, honor her for it.

The two-character play repeats itself in the second act, which is a reduction of the famous Carnegie Hall recital, with one too many badly sung arias, but Johnston and Lehl have a telling penultimate scene in which Jenkins's indomitable resolve and strength wanes after acknowledging the audience's laughter and pandemonium during her "Ave Maria." Backstage, McMoon can't bring himself to tell her the painful truth. She's defenseless and afraid, but McMoon will not shatter her now. He's grown to love this old broad who hasn't a shred of talent whatsoever, and Lehl and Johnston play the scene with quiet, heartfelt dignity.

Although Johnston is much too young and slim for the dowdy Jenkins, she embodies the diva with a feisty drive and ditzy monomania. In the coda, she appears, as did Madame Jenkins, as the Angel of Inspiration. And she sings the "Ave Maria" straight. It's an inspired ending — she sounds just like Florence Foster Jenkins always dreamed she sounded.

 
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