Florence Foster Jenkins was quite the cult celebrity in her time (Depression and World War II). She gave private singing recitals to raise money for her favorite charities and to fulfill her artistic needs. Musical greats of the day regularly came to see her, including Cole Porter, Lily Pons and Caruso. Though she made several recordings, her fame did not really survive her, and she was mostly, but not entirely, lost to time.
Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir: a Musical Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” now showing at Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre, is not the first look at Jenkins’ life. Though, the 2016 film starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant probably has done more to revive interest in her than any other individual work. In real life Jenkins had syphilis. Believed to be the result of the illness and treatments available in the pre-antibiotic era, her hearing was significantly impaired, to the point she slowly lost the ability to fully hear the impact of her voice. Directed by Tom Briggs, “Souvenir” features a cast of two to bring to life opera singer Jenkins’ and Cosme McMoon, her accompanist, to look at a very specific intersection in the lives of creative people whose dreams outstrip their gifts.
McMoon (Michael Lauicella) moved to New York to write music and make it big as a pianist and composer. It is 1934, he’s in his late 20s, without much in the way of prospects, when he gets introduced to Florence Foster Jenkins (Cindy Colucci). Jenkins is a wealthy heiress and socialite with dreams of opera stardom. “Madame Flo,” as Cosme comes to affectionately call her, can afford to buy anything to further her dreams: publicity, venues, costumes, even the perfect accompanist (ahem). She can control access to tickets to her performances to ensure the audience appreciates her work. But no amount of money can buy her the perfect voice.
The conceit and joke of the script is Florence believes she has perfect pitch and an unparalleled singing gift. McMoon is at first stumped: Does she know she can’t sing and is this an elaborate hoax? Or does she genuinely believe she has a gift? The thrust of the show becomes the dramatic irony that surrounds Jenkins, and indeed surrounded her in real life: Does she know what we know? Is she in on the joke?
Colucci turns in quite a performance for one of the most challenging roles she has portrayed. Every time Colucci opened her mouth to sing, I physically recoiled like I had been slapped. Each time was more horrific than the last. She didn’t just sing flat; she wandered about the keyboard with a blatant disregard for any suggestions the notes might make and with a volume that could strip paint from metal. It must have taken an effort of superhuman will to do it. Even more impacting is the fact Colucci has a beautiful singing voice.
“Oh, God! I have to leave…” my date whispered in a collapse of laughter when she geared up for her big final encore of “Ave Maria.”
The singing demands of the role aside, Colucci performs the private and mystical world of Jenkins beautifully. She’s not laughing at the philanthropist privately or trying to share a joke with the audience. She is genuine. It’s a road of discovery. Someone wants her to make a record? A souvenir of her voice and unique interpretation? She is invited to perform at Carnegie Hall? What an honor! What a dream come true! Perhaps that is what makes Colucci so compelling in the role. It certainly is the secret to the climax of Act II.
Temperley’s script and Briggs’ direction carefully and skillfully move the audience into the position of being the audience for her performance at Carnegie. So, slowly, we realize we are reacting the way Cosme recounts they reacted—complete with a mob-like bullying that emerges from outnumbering a sweet woman who offers nothing more than a shared love of art and a generous heart.
As we rolled in the aisles, laughing at her, it slowly dawned on her face for the first time what was happening. Colucci handles it so gently, as we realize the situation is occurring to her and she is genuinely hurt and surprised—sounds of remorse, sorrow and empathy began to emerge quietly from the darkened part of the theatre. We were having so much fun laughing and deriding her from a position of sensed superiority. Then the crash as empathy took over, and we had to see our actions for what they are.
It is a damn powerful moment and does more to confront our own preconceptions about ourselves, our behavior in groups, and what bullying can really feel like than any monologue will ever convey.
For all of Madame Flo’s centric attention, Cosme is the narrator and is on stage the entire time. It is filtered through his lens with which we get the story; we see a misunderstood but kind-hearted and isolated woman. (She considers Verdi to be “modern music” during the jazz age.)
Lauricella plays piano live onstage throughout almost the entire show. He also handles with ease the odd relationship with the fourth wall, written into the script for him. As narrator he talks with us directly, but he also plays the moment with Colucci and has to work through the changes and growth in their relationship. It is a voyage of discovery for him, too. He is not just trying to unravel the mystery of this woman, but also why has he been called to her? Who he will choose to be as a person and an artist? A two-person show is a very delicate balance—and the character and personality of Madame Flo can quickly overwhelm the stage and other performers. But Lauricella gently, kindly, and with strong foundations, balances her at every turn. Watching them find their footing together and chase dreams—at least one of them knows are still beyond their grasp—is really quite beautiful and unendingly entertaining.
“Souvenir” is a beautiful look at the trials and tribulations of the human journey, and struggles and demands of art. Colucci and Lauricella bring talent and craft to the script, alongside warmth, humor, depth, and empathy. I laughed. I cried. I went home and contemplated for days. It is a wonderful and remarkable production.