A confession: I can not sing. Totally tone deaf. But oh, when I’m alone and the music’s on, I belt out the blues with the fever and finesse of Billie Holiday. I am brilliant.
That’s sort of how Florence Foster Jenkins is — she absolutely cannot sing, but what she hears when she does is sublime. Her go-to songs are operatic arias.
Thing is, she doesn’t recognize that it’s all in her head. She was so convinced of her gift that Jenkins, who died in 1944, sang out at recitals, on records, and eventually at Carnegie Hall. She was wildly popular, not for her voice, as she thought, but because it was so horrible that it was fall-over funny.
Jenkins is the subject of “Souvenir.” The Stephen Temperley comedy opened at Live Theatre Workshop Saturday with Carlisle Ellis as the grande dame and Michael Martinez as her accompanist, Cosme.
Ellis’ Jenkins was full of drama and delusion. Every gesture spoke to the era and the character. She gave us a woman who was passionate and who believed in her gifts, even if those gifts did not exist.
Michael Martinez’s Cosme is urbane and a fine pianist — but not fine enough to make it in the music world on his own, and he realizes that. Martinez’s Cosme served as the narrator of the Jenkins story, taking the audience back to the years in the 1930s and ‘40s when he began playing for her. At first it was because he needed the rent money, but he eventually came to cherish this odd woman with enough money to generously indulge herself in her “art.” Martinez’s fine comic timing and nice arc from skeptic to friend provided the framework Jenkins’ wacky story needed.
One of the things the real-life Jenkins loved was to dress appropriately for each song, which meant the second act, basically a quick ride through her Carnegie concert, was also a costume parade. Stephanie Frankenfield deftly designed a wardrobe that served the story and was a visual treat.
Stephan Frankenfield directs and sees to it that the play moves swiftly and is fast with laughs, while it never treats Jenkins unkindly. It’s clear the playwright had a real tenderness toward her, and Frankenfield and his cast honor that.
The only weak note in the production at Saturday’s opening was the last scene. We get the chance to hear Jenkins sound the way she would have sounded to herself. Judy Kaye, who did this role on Broadway and again at Arizona Theatre Company, sang “Ave Maria” with a voice that was a remarkable contrast to how Jenkins sounded to the world. It gave a deeper understanding to her motivation.
That element was missing in this production. Ellis has likely burnt out her voice some trying to sound bad. In addition, the “Ave Maria” is not a song that suits her voice well.
But the role of Jenkins does suit Ellis well, and this play soars with laughter and heart.