I have always loved stories about Florence Foster Jenkins. She was mentioned in a book called Eccentrics many years ago and last night at The Geary Theater I met someone who actually heard her sing. Apparently, she was as ridiculous and touching in real life as she is portrayed in this superb play written by Stephen Temperley and directed by Vivian Matalon. Jenkins was a rich New York socialite who determined to sing opera at Carnegie Hall despite her obvious lack of vocal ability. She was obsessed with music and her parents thought she would become a child prodigy at the piano. She gave her first keyboard concert when she was 8 years old and even did a recital at the White House. She devoted herself to the vocal art after her father died and used her sizable inheritance to design elaborate costumes and rent halls for recitals throughout New York City. People flocked to these events to see her outlandish attire and to laugh at her atonal renditions. Despite their ridicule, Jenkins believed in herself and gave her all at every recital. As McMoon says, “She LOVED to rehearse.”
She composed her own epitaph to be carved on her gravestone before she died. It said: “Many people said I couldn’t sing; but no one can say I didn’t.”
When she turned 40, she became serious about taking her singing from her own drawing room to another level. After hiring numerous accompanists who could not survive her enthusiastic off-key arias, she discovered Cosme McMoon who eventually grew to admire and love her during their twelve years together. He was a talented pianist, but more important, he managed to maintain his composure during Jenkins’s excruciating numbers.
Souvenir is Jenkins’ story told by McMoon. The result is a delightfully poignant and sympathetic portrait of a woman who never flagged in her quest for a perfection she could never realized she did not achieve. She had magnificent stage presence. It is said that her recitals began as dignified society affairs that descended into mayhem and Jenkins changed from one outlandish costume to another and screeched out her tortured rendition of the beloved operatic repertoire.
In this production, Judy Kaye, the originator of the role in the Broadway Production in 2004, stars as Florence Foster Jenkins and she paints a picture of a confident, loveable and very kind woman plunging into her own nirvana with McMoon, (Donald Corren; also in the original play) trailing along. Once cannot help but envy such indomitable spirit. She never heard the missed notes that made her audiences flinch. She sang from her heart…and everyone knows that ones’ own heart holds absolute truth.
This is a gorgeous play. It is so worth the trip from wherever you are to San Francisco. It sounds like a comedy, but it is so much more than that. It is a tribute to personal dedication and courage and I cannot imagine a more touching, meaningful performance than that given by this amazingly talented duo. It made me, for one, want to rush outside and sing Musetta’s waltz at the top of my lungs, not because I have been trained to sing properly, but because I love that song, and even more imperative, I WANT to sing it.. Indulge yourself in the charm and beauty of this glimpse into what true courage can make happen. It is reassuring at least, inspiring at best.
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
February 13- March 15, 2009

415 749 2228