Brava, Dementia!

As Florence Foster Jenkins, Judy Kaye makes Souvenir something to remember, all right

The French word souvenir means "memory." The American play Souvenir means Judy Kaye. If this performance isn't a theatrical memory to cherish, I don't know what is. Not everything about Souvenir is perfect. In their effort to build the play up for Broadway after its Off-Broadway run last spring, author Stephen Temperley and director Vivian Matalon have actually overbuilt it somewhat. It's a little too long, a little too drawn out in its details; a little too much effort has gone into making drama out of what is really a delicious portrait of a mania; and a small but unfortunate touch of coarsening has been added to explain that mania to the untutored. But the mania itself, as embodied glowingly by Kaye, remains pure and remarkable.

For nearly three decades, Florence Foster Jenkins (1868–1944), a banker's daughter from Wilkes-Barre who believed she could sing, gave annual invitation-only concerts for charity that ranked among New York's most amazing phenomena, and must have ranked among the world's most excruciating musical experiences. (She gave only one public recital, in Carnegie Hall, at age 76, not long before her death.) Jenkins's ideas of tone, pitch, and rhythm were roughly those of a chimpanzee toying with a steam whistle. We have evidence: Late in her career, she recorded eight sides for Victor. In her mind, they were superior to recordings of the same works by Hempel, Tetrazzini, or Galli-Curci. She believed that she possessed perfect pitch and "the true coloratura."

She was clearly delusional. Yet her screama-donna renditions, now on CD, still produce the mixture of hilarity and horror-struck fascination that kept her concert audiences in an agony of laughter. In her innocent way, Jenkins was a symptom of modernism, the discordances she produced no less shocking than those that, in the era of her glory, occasioned such fierce mockery and such impassioned defense in the works of Schoenberg and his followers. Like him, she had a system previously unknown in Western music. Unlike him, she never explained it in print. Thus it has remained a source of com edy and wonderment rather than theoretical discussion. To listen to her believingly, if you know the music she's trashing, is to mistrust the sanity of your own ears.

An agony of laughter: Kaye and Corren
photo: Carol Rosegg
An agony of laughter: Kaye and Corren

That's the source from which Kaye's performance as Jenkins, fulfilling a theme Temperley teases through his script, draws its devastating, and devastatingly funny, strength. She believes. How a musically trained professional with Kaye's excellent ear can produce such squawks and whoops, in music that she knows how to sing correctly, is almost as great a mystery in its own way as Jenkins's obliviousness to the hilarity she provoked. The degree of discipline involved is staggering. Many pitch-perfect vocal artists have amused themselves by singing off-key on purpose: Cathy Berberian impersonating the inept recitalists in Madame Verdurin's salon; Jo Stafford's gloriously demented string of recordings as the clueless lounge singer "Darlene Edwards." But Kaye has to do it for a full evening, in some of the most vocally taxing music ever written. Plus, she has to create, and make us love, the hopelessly dense, implacably determined woman who produces these appalling sounds. And she succeeds: By the show's end, when, in a vision, she gets to sing something correctly for a change, we aren't sure it sounds right. We no longer trust our ears. The mania has taken hold, and the glory of Jenkins's dementia lives on.

We've been warned, of course. Kaye's partner in Souvenir, Donald Corren, plays the half-fictitious character of Jenkins's accompanist, Cosme McMoon. The real-life Jenkins employed a succession of pianists who played for her under that name. (One was so embarrassed by the task that he insisted on doing so from behind a screen.) Temperley gives his imagined McMoon a sketchy life outside Jenkins's orbit, as a directionless, gay young composer manqué, whose growing fascination with Jenkins makes him the enabler of her madness till it nearly becomes a folie à deux. He ends up, after her death, as a faintly seedy piano-bar drudge, steeped in memories of her puzzling greatness. Though we need McMoon as a foil to Jenkins, a voice of sanity to put her voice of alternative pitch systems in perspective, Temperley and Matalon give him far too much stage time, which makes the focus slip steadily away from Jenkins's riveting obsessiveness toward the less-than-riveting story of how mad singer and rational accompanist build a buddy relationship. Also, the cabaret standards he plays and sings tend to dilute both our sense of Jenkins's passionate reverence for the great classical showpieces she butchers and our shock at the butchery: In the looser vocabulary of pop music, screeches and whoops and irregular rhythms can seem normal; it's classical expectations that make us jump when Kaye's Jenkins overshoots a high note or charges ahead of the beat.

The solid excellence of Corren's performance, too, is a virtue with its own defect. Dapper and self-assured, timing his gag lines and reactions with George Abbott precision, he seems far too sturdy a personage to fall under Jenkins's sway; he lacks the frayed-nerve aura that tends to emanate from accompanists. Still, though his strength tilts the balance away from Kaye, the cyclotron-powered sweet complacence with which she animates Jenkins's most outrageous assertions and most piercing caterwauls can beat almost anything in town for hilarious, hypnotic astonishment.

 
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