WESTPORT — Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person, a very rich, very deluded daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh physician, who settled in New York and proceeded to launch her own career as a soprano soloist, despite the fact that she could not sing. Her shrieks, whoops, and decidedly off-key notes bring to mind one of those old Bugs Bunny cartoons in which a bosomy coloratura inflicts ear-splitting “opera” on a reluctant rabbit. Or, for those devotees of the Belgian graphic artist Herge — creator of the Tin-Tin comics — she is the prototype of Madame Castafiore, who makes dogs cry when she sings “The Jewel Song” from Faust.
By the time of her death in 1944, Florence had gained great fame because of a unique combination of qualities: She had an absolutely dreadful voice, an unshakeable conviction that she was a uniquely gifted singer whom audiences loved, and enough inherited money to finance her concert career, buoyed by the happy misapprehension that the crowds who flocked to hear her did so out of genuine appreciation of her talent.
To see Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir — which continues only through April 27 at Westport Community Theatre — is like attending one of Florence’s actual concerts. One gets to see her exposed in all her misadvised glory, and to hear some of the most appalling caterwauling ever to grace a stage. As such, the audience plays its own role in the show: Are we there simply to laugh at the spectacle, as the crowds did during the heyday of her orbit (although they generally stuffed their handkerchiefs in their mouths to spare her feelings) or is there some deeper meaning to be drawn, some insight to be gained into the nature of art and artists?
The play is structured through the reminiscences of Cosme McMoon, some 22 years after the death of Florence. As a young man from the provinces, struggling to make it as a composer in Bohemian New York circles, Cosme was hired to be Florence’s accompanist. Although he was initially appalled and embarrassed to be seen on the same stage with her, he needed the money.
For 12 years — from 1932 until her death in 1944 — he stayed with her, played for her, and, as he came to feel deep affection for her, bolstered her spirits with supportive encouragement.
The trajectory of her career is seen through Cosme’s accounts of memorable occasions: her first recital, her first recording, and ultimately a huge concert dedicated to the World War II fighting men, which filled Carnegie Hall to overflowing.
Priscilla Squiers, who in fact possesses a beautiful soprano voice as well as great comic talent, does a terrific job as the implacably confident Florence, murdering classical art songs with impunity, as she howls her way through Shubert, Mozart, Gounod , and the like.
Wisely, Director Ruth Anne Baumgartner has chosen to give equal emphasis to the character of Cosme. As played by Greg Chrzczon, he is an aging lounge pianist who has never gotten past the periphery of life. Wryly self-deprecating, with a mobile face that has great comic possibilities, he engages in rueful self-examination, as he speculates about the validity of Florence’s resolute pursuit of what she believes to be beauty. Is it any less worthy than his own attempts to create ? Has his own life been simply a shadow version of hers? Is the power of her belief in herself a form of vitality that he lacks?
If you go on ebay you can probably buy recordings of the real Florence Foster Jenkins, and listen to them and laugh. It would be far better, however, to see this play, with its nuances of characterization, and terrific performances by its cast. It’s entertaining, and amusing, and definitely different.
(Remaining performances are Friday and Saturday, April 25-26, at 8 pm, and Sunday, April 27, at 2 pm. The theater within Westport Town Hall, at 100 Myrtle Avenue.
For tickets, curtain and other information, visit westportcommunitytheatre.com or call the box office at 203-226-1983.)