Most of us cursed with a severe lack of singing ability are smart enough not to embarrass ourselves in public. (I suspect I’m one of the only former ninth grade chorus boys ever instructed to lip-synch throughout “The King and I” – so I understand the concept quite well.)
Yet New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, who rarely met a musical note that she could hit, did just the opposite. And her ear-shattering, real-life tale is the subject of “Souvenir,” now playing at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre.
The story opens in 1964 on the 20th anniversary of Jenkins’ death, with composer, accompanist and now cocktail performer Cosme McMoon sitting at his piano, recalling the events that led up to the eccentric woman’s one shining moment: a 1944 jaw-dropping – and ear-splitting – solo concert at Carnegie Hall that sold out weeks in advance.
Jenkins’ dream, he explains, was to sing the classics. Stymied by parents and an ex-husband who lovingly refused to allow that to happen, Jenkins became a teacher and pianist instead. Her rich father’s death gave her the partial freedom to pursue her lifelong objective, so she began giving small recitals to raise money for charity – attended only by her upper crust friends whose response encouraged her to push forward. But it took 20 more years and the death of her mother for the now 60-year-old to begin planning her first public recital.
Looking for her musical soul mate, Jenkins meets struggling 29-year-old McMoon. Interested in earning some quick cash, he agrees to become her one-time collaborator. But what he hears is so painful, that it nearly derails their partnership.
Instead, he becomes her friend and protector for 12 years, shielding her from the reality behind much of her popularity. “I found myself admiring her,” McMoon admits.
And so do we. Playwright Stephen Temperley paints a portrait of a determined, dedicated and passionate woman who achieves fame DESPITE her lack of talent. Sure, she really DOES believe she’s an excellent soprano, yet Temperley never allows us to pity her. Instead, we’re shown a woman who overflows with chutzpah and confidence – and one who, when confronted by critics, retorted with, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
Temperley’s script comes with two major challenges, however: It requires an actress who CAN sing well to convincingly sing quite badly; and it’s easy to play Jenkins and McMoon (who was gay) as caricatures.
The first hurdle was easily conquered. Although it must have been difficult for Naz Edwards to sing excruciatingly off-key – her smooth, operatic voice is normally superb – she does so quite convincingly. (Compare Edwards’ performance to recordings of Jenkins, and the similarities are amazing.) And her portrayal of the ditzy, but sincere socialite is a near perfect blend of honesty and lunacy.
Equally well played is Fred Love’s McMoon. His reactions to Edwards’ Jenkins are often priceless, and his piano playing is likewise impeccable. (Plus, there’s no doubt that his character is gay.)
Direction by Jim Posante – who unexpectedly passed away following the second preview performance only five days earlier – is generally crisp and lively (which can be difficult to accomplish in a production that contains little dramatic content), and his characters are fully explored.
But two blackouts during pivotal moments are confusing and don’t achieve the desired effect. And both characters briefly flirt with parody during the show’s second act.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. Thu.-Sun., through Feb. 10. Tickets: $25-$37. For information: 734-663-0681 or http://www.performancenetwork.org.