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Use Your Illusion

C'mon, Elizabeth, we know you can sing.
Shel Shanak

Famed coloratura soprano Florence Foster Jenkins was 44 years old when her singing career began. It started with small recitals for her friends and carefully selected music lovers, and she likely attempted to cover up her budding celebrity from her disapproving mother. It was only with the old lady dead and her inheritance in hand that Jenkins was able to share her special gift with the world. She was 60, and the year was 1928.

She's not as famous now as she was then, but Jenkins is still an in-joke among opera lovers. This is because Florence Foster Jenkins couldn't sing, not even a little, and her crazy delusion of genius was a readymade punch line for all occasions. She was a cartoon of the operatic diva, with her overwhelming self-importance, ridiculous costumes, and total lack of self-awareness. She was a magnet for thinly veiled class hatred, since only a spoiled heiress could indulge herself by hiring an accompanist and imposing her weird fantasies on the public. Maybe she also inspired a queer kind of jealousy — people who couldn't sing and would never work up the courage to try could use her to defend their own lack of balls. "At least I'll never look like her," they might have said.

Jenkins also inspired love — an awesome, blind kind of love — in a considerable cross section of the public. As director J. Barry Lewis explains in the program for Stephen Temperley's Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, "There was a quiet nobility about the woman that often silenced the skeptics and softened the ridicule... Madame Flo was an eloquent lesson in fidelity and courage." This is exactly right, except I've never found Jenkins' nobility especially "quiet."

Souvenir is a lightly fictionalized, highly annotated account of the last 12 years of Jenkins' life and career as viewed through the eyes of stalwart accompanist Cosmé McMoon, and it captures her quite well: her love of music, her nuttiness, the quandary of her accompanist, and the pleasant contradiction of a woman with none of the classical requirements for world-renowned artistry who became a world-renowned artist anyway. The play is largely comprised of rehearsals between McMoon and Jenkins, and it seeks its meanings in McMoon's musings about the nature of music, art, courage, and fame. The dramatic conceit is that he's playing piano in some smoky bar, looking back at his career with the misfit diva and trying to figure out how an ostensibly embarrassing, short-term, for-profit gig with Jenkins somehow grew into the most significant artistic odyssey of his life.

McMoon is played by Tom Kenaston, who is fast becoming my favorite local keysman. He's a very fine pianist whose style turns even ragtime into perfectly unspooling processions of shimmering, limpid lines, and he's an equally good actor: He knows how to locate the pathos in the patently absurd, and vice versa. Early in the play, he's horrified by Jenkins' lack of talent and what a public appearance with her might mean for his musical career. The 12-year scope of the play centers on his slow-dawning realization that this apparent hack stands head and shoulders above the people who'd denigrate her, and in his realization, McMoon finds just the right balance of mirth, admiration, and love.

The diva herself is played by Elizabeth Dimon. It's impossible to know if she got Jenkins right, since Jenkins was never captured on video and few witnesses of her bizarre rise are left to tell the story. But it feels as if she did, if only because she's so unselfconsciously odd. Watching Dimon, I got the sense that I'd never met anyone like her before — nobody with that combination of imperiousness and kindness, devotion and insanity. In her way, Jenkins was a kind of solipsist, but she was a graceful, lovable one.

The contradictions of Jenkins' persona and quixotic career and the heart with which they're portrayed make Souvenir a surpassingly good summer show, and it could even contend as a nonsummery bit of serious art if it weren't for two problems. The most serious is this: Souvenir is a comedy, but it has only one joke. Florence Foster Jenkins herself might have amused people for two hours with her wretched singing, but watching two actors alternately imitate, analyze, and make innocent fun of that singing for a comparable length of time is very different. At intermission, I wondered if there was any point in having a second act when all present knew what it contained: Cosmé worrying about his rep while Florence screeched. Given the nature of the play, this trouble seems unavoidable. It could have been averted only by a total change in scope — say, by fictionalizing the years of Florence's family-enforced silence and saving her racket for the denouement.

The other problem is minor and concerns Dimon's singing. She's exactly as "bad" as Jenkins, whatever that means, but Dimon sounds like a person with a fine voice singing poorly on purpose. When you listen to Jenkins on record, in the posthumously released collection called The Glory (????) of the Human Voice, it doesn't sound like that at all. You can hear Jenkins reaching for the notes — she knew approximately where they were and had enough faith in herself to blast in their general direction in the hope that she'd hit enough to pass. Strictly speaking, she actually did hit her pitches about as often as she missed them — she just sounded terrible when she did so. Dimon's singing suggests none of this struggle. It hops around the scale at random and makes a mockery of dynamics. Jenkins too was notably lacking in dynamic control, but it was because she didn't know how to support her voice. She didn't just start shrieking for no reason.

What I'm trying to say is that Jenkins' singing did more than suck, but Dimon thinks suckage is enough. It's good that this mistake is compensated for by Dimon's otherwise sublime acting, because if it weren't, the audience would miss the point of the play and the unlikely appeal of Florence Foster Jenkins. In addition to sucking, Jenkins also tried: She was determined to find her voice and use it, and to hell with what anyone said. It occurs to me that there are hundreds of 20th-century musicians who took a cue from her without knowing it. They have surnames like Pop, Richman, Smith, Rotten, Waits, and Costello. Florence Foster Jenkins might have been aghast at sharing company with such a bunch but only because she couldn't know how much she had in common with them. There was a lot she didn't know. As history has shown, there was also quite a bit that she did.


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