Souvenir, A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, currently in production at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3, chronicles Madame Flo’s journey from performing invitation-only charity recitals to one fateful night at Carnegie Hall. I’ve spent much of the last week chronicling Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival. This has given me the opportunity to hear some of the finest performers currently working, in repertoire old and new.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that I cap off my classical music adventure by visiting with the woman generally acknowledged as the worst singer of all time. Jenkins (1868-1944), a New York society lady, was born and raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Her pure love of music, and total ignorance at her lack of skill, briefly vaulted her to cult-sensation status in the 1940s. Her career culminated in that legendary (and legendarily bad) recital, where a standing-room-only crowd alternately cheered and jeered the old matron as she butchered Mozart and Gounod.
Playwright Stephen Temperley refracts the experience through the lens of Cosmé McMoon (Jonas Cohen). That longtime accompanist and confidant stumbled into Mrs. Jenkins’s rehearsal room (rendered by set designer Roman Tatarowicz and impeccably lit by Troy A. Martin-O’Shia) and ended up staying for 12 years.
Although written in 2004, Souvenir feels like a throwback, in style and substance. Temperley rarely allows the clearly closeted Cosmé a line that doesn’t in some way reference what “the boys” are doing in Greenwich Village or the latest spat with his “current roommate.” Since Cosmé’s sexuality has no bearing on the story, the steady stream of outdated nudge/innuendo serves no purpose other than to peg him as a classic queer stereotype, another light-loafered ivory tickler.
Winks and nudges
Jenkins fares no better. She announces her sincere intentions near the beginning of the play — “I am not a silly woman,” she tells Cosmé at their first meeting — but Temperley never shows them. Jenkins was a complex person, and there are many avenues through which to tell her story: her unhappy childhood; the lack of fulfillment she felt in her society circles; her genuine belief that she possessed that rarest of musical gifts, the “true coloratura.” Stephen Frears explored many of these themes in Florence Foster Jenkins, his excellent 2016 biopic. Temperley more often chooses the path of least resistance, glossing over or simply ignoring her backstory. Yes, bad singing can be funny. But without any emotional stakes, Jenkins merely exists as an object of ridicule.
Matters aren’t helped by Rebecca Robbins’s winking performance. It can be difficult for a trained vocalist to sing badly, and in that respect the Curtis-educated Robbins deserves high marks. But she often performs with a glint in her eye and a knowing nod to the audience, as if to say “Don’t worry, this isn’t really how I sound. Just wait and you’ll see.” This may flatter Robbins’s ego, but it’s totally out of character for Jenkins, who never doubted her musical gifts. This lack of connection to the character merely accentuates the deficits of Temperley’s thin script.
Occasional moments approach real drama, as when Cosmé loses his temper during a rehearsal near the end of Act One. His compassion flies out the window; he demands Jenkins sing the Queen of the Night’s fiendishly difficult aria from Die Zauberflöte exactly as written. Of course, she can’t. Director Debi Marcucci builds the tension of the moment with a steady hand, and Cohen firmly communicates Cosmé’s self-hatred at sacrificing a respectable music career to become the aspiring diva’s lackey.
It’s a scene of pure clarity, but it’s fleeting. The second act commences; the pastiche returns. We once again laugh not with Madame Flo, but at her.