The career of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868–1944), classical music’s most appallingly devoted servant, is a stern reminder that faith can move mountains—which, since mountains should generally be left where they are, makes a healthy sense of doubt one of the necessary components of human sanity. An upper-class heiress of more than modest means, Jenkins was an amateur soprano who believed herself possessed of “the true coloratura” and perfect pitch; she was also apparently tone-deaf, with only the vaguest rhythmic sense, and hopelessly unmusical in every other respect. Yet her thin but shrill slide whistle of a voice graced New York’s more exclusive recital stages (including a Carnegie Hall debut near the end of her career) for 16 years, from the late 1920s into World War II. She paid for the recitals herself and gave the proceeds to charity; what began as her social set’s indulgence of her innocent vanity ended as one of New York’s more beloved shrines of unintentional camp. Her concerts sold out instantly, and she became enough of a celebrity to cut a long string of 78s, preserving her massacre of famous arias and songs for posterity. (For the strong-eared, she’s available on CD.) Through it all, she insisted that her only motive was her desire to bring good music to the world; she even compared her recordings to those of actual prima donnas and wrote her record company to gloat over how much better she sounded than Kurz, Tetrazzini, or Galli-Curci. Delusion in the face of hard evidence could run no deeper.
The depth of Jenkins’s delusional faith in herself must be the animating force behind Judy Kaye’s superb performance in Stephen Temperley’s awkwardly carpentered but often dead-on funny biographical drama about Jenkins, Souvenir. Demure in manner and genteelly soft-spoken except when giggling or squealing in delight, Kaye’s Jenkins is nonetheless rock-like in her self-assurance, implacable as an avalanche in her determination. It’s a wonder nobody thought to include Mozart’s “Come scoglio” (“like a rock”) among her scrupulously misrendered samplings of the arias Jenkins shredded. A particular delight for the musically knowledgeable, incidentally, is to spot the moments in which Kaye’s excellent musicianship almost leads her to hit the right note—and to watch with glee as she catches herself just in time to land on the optimally wrong one. Very few singers can manage this trick effectively; the skill and comic precision with which Kaye does it puts her Jenkins nearly on a par with Jo Stafford’s off-key avatar “Darlene Edwards.”
In dialogue, too, Kaye proves herself once again the assured comic artist of whom we’ve seen far too little since the days of her headline-grabbing rescue job in On the Twentieth Century. More matronly now but still madcap, Kaye handily demonstrates qualities that could illuminate the whole range of mature female comic roles, from Lady Bracknell to Abby Brewster. It’s not every actress who can evoke, while singing off-key, both the gravity of Edith Evans and the endearing dottiness of Marion Lorne. Temperley’s script needs pruning—it should also be stripped of its one really bad idea, giving the unassailable Jenkins a next-to-closing moment of doubt—and Vivian Matalon’s production needs to provide Kaye a stronger scene partner than Jack F. Lee, a redoubtable musician but no sort of actor. Lee plays Jenkins’s faithful accompanist Cosmé McMoon, in actuality a pseudonym for a succession of pianists who didn’t want their real names linked to Jenkins’s caterwauling. Temperley represents him as a devotee-interlocutor, still trying to unravel the mystery of Jenkins’s fascination decades after her death. This seems wasted effort: With Kaye out there embodying the miracle of faith, who needs to analyze it? We simply believe in her singing, as Tertullian believed the story of Christ, “because it is absurd.”