SOUVENIR: The Tony-nominated Judy Kaye has nothing on Leigh Barrett.
For Shakespeare’s Orsino, music is the food of love. For soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, it was the food of delusion — and she had a voracious appetite. The real-life heroine of Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins (at Lyric Stage Company through March 17) boasted neither voice nor ear nor musicianship. But she made up for these deficiencies with a sublime confidence that allowed her to appear in concert throughout the 1930s and early ’40s without noticing that, to her public, she was less Callas than caterwauling William Hung of American Idol–reject fame.
Playwright Temperley set out to immortalize “the diva of din” but, by his own admission, succeeded only when he recast her story as that of her long-time accompanist, Cosme McMoon, recalling their collaboration from behind a nightclub piano 20 years after the singer’s death. At the Lyric, under the direction of Spiro Veloudos, the play is both an unlikely love story and a tribute to an indomitable artist who lacked only artistry. It’s a tragedy, if you think about it. It is also, as they say in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “very tragical mirth,” and taken to hilarious heights by Leigh Barrett, whose fluty “Madame Flo” is tone-deaf yet operatic, and Will McGarrahan, whose McMoon grows increasingly stricken as the diva dauntlessly drags him, rung by rung, up the ladder of public performance. It’s a climb that culminates in a sold-out 1944 engagement at Carnegie Hall that makes up much of the second act of the play. Here McMoon narrates with morbid yet exhilarated fascination the mounting audience hysteria as Foster Jenkins appears in a series of over-the-top costumes, butchering classics of the soprano repertoire as surely as if Sweeney Todd lurked in her larynx.
If you think Souvenir exaggerates either the awfulness of Foster Jenkins’s singing or the depth of her delusion, you need only subject your ears to a couple of tracks of the CD Florence Foster Jenkins: The Glory (????) of the Human Voice, on which the soprano unintentionally abuses her idols, from “Mr. Mozart” (the Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflöte) to Johann Strauss (Adele’s Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus). She does so in Souvenir as well, with Barrett colliding just often enough with the tunes to show that she is an accomplished singer portraying one who could no more stay atop a note than she might a raging bull.
I saw Judy Kaye, who was nominated for a Tony, play Foster Jenkins, and Barrett is as wonderful. Her determined diva is matronly yet girlish, her whole persona musical, from bobbing head to overdramatic gestures to staccato outbursts of sheer glee. Best of all, she conveys the rhapsodic love of music that renders Foster Jenkins’s botched effort to produce it as sadly heroic as it is farcical. Early on, the character, pooh-poohing any need for accuracy in singing, remarks that what matters most is the music you hear in your head. And whether or not that assertion cuts much mustard with those of us listening from outside the rapturous noggin, a stunning coda bears it out.