Souvenir, the true story of a soprano who can’t sing, closes the Cortland Repertory season
Audiences going into Cortland Repertory Theatre’s Souvenir may be tempted to think that the main character, Florence Foster Jenkins, is a preposterous creation of comic playwright Stephen Temperley. She’s the self-deluded “world’s worst soprano” who can’t hold a note and whose warblings fall somewhere between those of the frog and the crow. Unlikely as she may seem, the real Madame Flo (1868-1944) used to pack them in at Manhattan’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, where she lived. Her 78 rpm records sold like hotcakes, and in the last dark years of World War II, she sold out Carnegie Hall in two hours. With abundant humor, Temperley’s Souvenir helps us to get a handle on the old girl and even feel some sympathy for her.
Since Molière’s time, vain self-deceiving egotists have been the easiest targets for comedy, especially if they are rich and older. If that’s all there were to Souvenir it would be over in 10 minutes. In casting soprano April Woodall (we eventually learn that her voice is vastly different from Madame Flo’s), Cortland Repertory got a physical as well as a vocal comedienne. Woodall’s rapid entrances, running like a child, yearning to please and expecting to be liked, visually complement the horrors she commits in trying—and failing—to hit the right note. For the first 20 minutes, Madame Flo is a clown.
What we see, then, is that Florence Foster Jenkins was camp two decades before Susan Sontag coined that now-indispensable term. Among Jenkins’ prominent fans were notable gay artists, like Noel Coward, Cole Porter and composer Gian Carlo Menotti, as well as gay-friendly women, like Tallulah Bankhead. Her accompanist and the narrator of Souvenir is an inthe-closet homosexual named Cosme McMoon (Bill Kincaid), a pianist and minor composer whose works are still available on Amazon.com. Kincaid, who also serves as director, prefers to present gays as straight-talking. In last summer’s Six Dance Lesson in Six Week, the gay dance instructor had no more gay mannerisms than your average Rotarian. And so it is with his Cosme. Many of the character’s lines are witty exposition, explaining what we do not see. Those are enough. Kincaid’s Cosme does not milk them for anything more, as other players have.
Souvenir is not a documentary, requiring us to dig in order to explain how Madame Flo could get away with her self-promotion. The family had made its money around Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Florence’s father, a banker-lawyer named Foster, knew his daughter’s limitations and so refused her the chance to study music in Europe. After her elopement to a hapless Dr. Jenkins ended in divorce, and her father’s death, Florence inherited the first part of her fortune and an indulgent mother, who allowed music lessons as long as she never performed in public. When the mother died in 1928, loosening the strings to the rest of the money, Florence, perhaps now 60, could follow her heartfelt indulgences. This meant her first private concerts for friends at the Ritz, and then on to the bigger conquests. Cosme enters the story in 1932, by which time Madame Flo had set her sights.
Among classical music buffs, the legend of Florence Foster Jenkins never flickered. During the heyday of the late, lamented Syracuse classical station WONO-FM, Jenkins’ recordings were always a highlight of April Fool’s Day programming. Indeed, her story has been told on the stage elsewhere with different effect. Peter Quilter’s Glorious! starred famed comedienne Maureen Lippman in a long London run that did better box office, won more awards and has been translated into more languages. Opening about the same time as Souvenir, it is crueler and shallower. Quilter’s Madame Flo is simply a fool, like a grander version of Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain. She doesn’t have as many places to go.
Where Madame Flo goes, she takes Cosme with her. The turning point comes when an exasperated Cosme barks at the soprano, calling her a “foolish woman,” for not being able to hit a note when he repeatedly taps it on the keyboard. It’s one of the few exchanges that evokes nary a smile. There’s a moment where we feel the relationship might be sundered and Cosme will be kicked out. Not only does she soldier on, but her undaunted confidence begins to influence Cosme, who had been pretty much frittering away his time. He speaks perhaps 80 percent of the lines in Souvenir, and as Kincaid’s direction underscores, he is the one striving to achieve a dramatic arc. She stays the same, but we see her differently as his perception changes.
All the allusions to Mozart in Souvenir encourage us to see the play as a kind of reverse of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in which mediocrity wins the day. As Cosme tells us, Florence is not encumbered by adversity and finds each succeeding performance makes her happier.
The climax comes with the Carnegie Hall concert, with rapid exits and entrances for the diva, each in another over-thetop costume from Jimmy Johansmeyer.
(Special applause for the “Mexican” outfit that’s really a multicolored Bavarian dirndl.) The Cortland audience grows giddy with reports of the roars of approval from that long-ago SRO crowd. Until Madame Flo appears with white angel wings and spotless gown, mimicking the photo on her recordings, for the finale. Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” That’s when she has to face the question whether her act really is the birth of camp. And we’re rooting for her.
Like the missed cues in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, singing really badly takes work and is undoubtedly hell on the vocal chords. April Woodall does not signal that she’s above the material and instead lets her voice wander all over the scale and can’t find a B flat to save herself. “Oh, that modern mania for accuracy,” her character Florence complains. Her credits tell us she recently sang the role of the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music that calls for a “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” to peel the paint off the rafters. Somehow we can tell she has it in her.
last show of the season at Cortland Repertory is usually scaled back,
as much of the production staff has left town, often to return to
college at some distant campus. True, Souvenir is a two-hander where
director-actor Kincaid triples as music director. There’s no pulling
back on Jason Bolen’s set design, however, evocatively lighted by Eric
Behnke. Rotating panels suggest different forms of luxury at different
Manhattan locations. Despite the sour economy and zero job growth for
August, Cortland Repertory has had gangbusters box office for summer
2011. This is how they do it.
This production runs through Saturday, Sept. 10. See Times Table for information.