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A CurtainUp Review
A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins

Judy Kaye & Donald Corren
Judy Kaye& Donald Corren
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Souvenir's arrival at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway actually marks its third opening. It premiered at the York Theater Off-Broadway where it extended several times. Its brief stop at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge was a highlight of that theater's 2005 summer season. It was essentially a pre-trial run for a hoped for lengthy one on Broadway. With Donald Corren again making this much more than a one-person play, and perhaps a few more dazzling costumes for the superb Judy Kaye, Souvenir may well have enough enthusiastic word of mouth to fulfill its promise.

The fact that I've now seen all three productions and wasn't bored even the third time around says a good deal about the play's virtues. Whether it will overcome the resistance of classical music lovers to hearing their favorite arias butchered no matter how bravura the performance of Judy Kaye as the demented diva, and the special-ness of the fact-based play, remains to be seen. The producers couldn't have found a more suitable Broadway home than the beautiful Lyceum. I rather hoped that director Vivan Matalon and playwright Stephen Temperley would put their heads together to trim the show by at least fifteen minutes (as good as Corren's piano playing is, a little less would have been just as, if not more, enjoyable). Happily there's been no reduction of Tracy Christensen's costumes -- elegant for the Ritz Music room scenes, hilarious for Mrs. Foster-Jenkins Carnegie Hall Concert. By my count, there are fourteen and all, and I hear there are three dressers back stage to help Ms. Kaye zip in and out of them (literally so, as all are designed with expediting zippers).

Judy Kaye has a reputation for not missing performances, but it's worth noting that she does have a well-qualified understudy in Meg Bussert. The same is true for Mr. Corren. His backup, Bob Stillman, played all the men in another small play with strong show business legs, Dirty Blonde. Interestingly, Madame Jenkins has inspired yet another play which is currently running in London where our critic also found much to praise -- Glorious

Except for the venue, performance dates and ticket prices, the production notes are the same as for the Berkshire Theatre Festival production -- the still valid reviews of which, as well as the originial York Theater one-- follow these notes.

Lyceum, 149 W. 45th St., (Broadway/6th Av) 212/239-6200
10/28/05; opening 11/10/05--Closing 1/08/06.
Tickets $86.25-- $46.25.
Tues to Sat 8pm, Wed & Sat @ 2pm, Sun at 3pm

Berkshire Theatre Festival Review of Souvenir
York Theatre Review of Souvenir

Florence Foster Jenkins
Florence Foster Jenkins on cover of Murder on the High C's recording.
In case you're curious to hear the real Florence Foster Jenkins, her "true coloratura" has been preserved on audio CD's available via our books store -- and below that the current production notes.
The Glory of Human Voice and
Florence Foster Jenkins & Friends: Murder on the High C's

Berkshire Theatre Festival Review of Souvenir
Judy Kaye
Judy Kaye as Florence Foster Jenkins and Donald Corren as her accompanyist and, ultimately friend and admirer. (Photo: Kevin Sprague)
I reviewed Souvenir during its Off-Broadway premiere at the York Theater, a small company that has long given a big boost to new musicals (that review follows these comments). I'm delighted to report that Stephen Temperly's play about Florence Foster Jenkins, the society woman who enjoyed a remarkably successful concert career despite the fact that her singing was gosh-awful enough for critics to dub her the "dire diva of din" has made a triumphant landing on the Berkshire Theatre Festival's Main Stage. The golden-voiced Judy Kaye once again manages to sing badly and portray Jenkins with comic glee -- and yet invest this screeching, self-proclaimed coloratura with a bracing humanity and spirit.

Kaye is still the star. After all she's the one who gets to hilariously murder the music of Mozart, Verdi, Gounod and Brahms and to wear more of Tracy Christensen's elegant as well as spectacularly silly costumes than a whole ensemble in a more populated musical. But with Donald Corren, a seasoned actor and singer, now playing Madam Jenkins' accompanist Cosme McMoon, what originally was basically a one-woman show with a pianist doubling as narrator is now safe from the risk of coming off as a one joke caricature. It is instead securely positioned as a full-bodied play for two gifted performers that has every reason to be optimistic about its Broadway run Kaye and Corren have great chemistry. His tactful efforts to dissuade her from undertakings that might shatter her illusions and her unassailable self-confidence make for some priceless comic duets. (The play's title is borne from one such example: When he tries to stop her from recording Mozart's "Queen of the Night" she calmly insists that it's a perfect choice -- "Think! In days to come when my voice is not perhaps as strong as it is now, to be able to hear it as it once was! In all its glory! a lovely souvenir."

Besides actually enriching Kaye's bravura performance Corren's presence heightens one's appreciation of Stephen Temperly's script. He lands every amusing line (and there's no shortage of them) with perfect timing and telling body language. His supper club style singing during his flashbacks to his sixteen years with Jenkins is as musically delightful as Kaye's Jenkinesque singing is deliriously awful.

Corren lets us see Cosme's wry revelations about his own prodigious but failed songwriting efforts as a sharp counterpoint to his patron's escalating fame and success and how it increases his admiration and affection for Jenkins. Instead of resenting her success, he valiantly tries to protect her from discovering that her concert audiences are laughing at her. In short, what we have is a romance of sorts -- nothing sexual mind you (Jenkins who was born in 1868 was many years Cosme's senior) but a relationship complete with lover-like quarrels and reconciliations-- like the scene when the tone deaf singing finally makes Cosme explode and call Jenkins a silly woman and then charm her into forgiving him with snatches from "Crazy For You" ("Here is where we have a showdown/ You're too high-hat. I'm too low-down/Walkin' along Broadway/Soon the high-brow has no brow./ Ain't it a shame? And I'm to blame. . .").

Except for the new accompanist who puts to rest my only quibbles when I reviewed Souvenir at the York Theater, the original and very able director and design team are still on board. The music loving Berkshirites are a perfect pre-Broadway test audience for this entertaining "Fantasia" (Temperly has not allowed the facts about Jenkins and her accompanist to get in the way of his imagination). The Berkshire Theatre Festival is an especially apt venue given that Temperly, donned his actor's hat here four seasons ago to appear in H. M. S. Pinafore and Vivian Matalon directed a play called Quartet about, guess what-- four opera singers.

If the enthusiasm at the opening night I attended is any indication, Souvenir IS ready for the Great White Way. I'm told that Judy Kaye will have even more costumes by the time the show opens there in November but the Lyceum, while bigger than BTF, is small enough to allow everyone to see every detail.

A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
Written by Stephen Temperley
Directed by Vivian Matalon
Cast: Judy Kaye as Florence Foster Jenkins, Donald Corren as Cosme McMoon
Set Scenic Design: R. Michael Miller
Costume Design: Tracy Christensen.
Lighting Design: Ann G. Wrightson Musical Supervisor: Tom Helm

Sound Design: David Budries
Running time: 2 hours plus intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival Co-Production with Ted Snowdon, Main Stage, Stockbridge, MA. 413-298-5576
Monday through Saturday evenings at 8pm, Thursday and Saturday matinees at 2pm.
Tickets range in price from $36-$63. Students with proper ID receive 50 percent discount.
August 17 -September 3, 2005
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on August 19th press performance

York Theatre Review of Souvenir same critic (Elyse Sommer), different Cosmo McMoon
I'm hearing a certain want of accuracy. . .some intonations are perhaps not quite what is written.
---Cosme McMoon, after he recovers from his first exposure to Florence Foster Jenkins' voice, and offers the first of many highly diplomatic comments. She acknowledges his comment graciously -- but with her as usual tone-deaf self confidence, declaring "I only hear the music."

Judy Kaye
Judy Kaye as Florence Foster Jenkins singing in one of the most famous of her many costumes, as she sings her beloved "Ave Maria"
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
When Florence Foster Jenkins (1868 -- 1944), a wealthy New York society widow sang for the audiences at various prestigious recital halls, including Town Hall and ultimately Carnegie Hall, what she heard was something quite different from what the audience heard. To her inner ear she sang with perfect pitch, her "pure coloratura" doing full justice to the great composers' finest arias. To the listener she appeared to be tone deaf and the only possible reason for her annual concerts was that she financed them herself and donated the proceeds to charity.

The shrillness and bizarre tempo with which she enthusiastically attacked an aria threatened to undo even the most lyrical music. Yet, it was the overpowering awfulness of her voice that led to her becoming a recital hall star in her own right. People loved her concerts because they were so hilarious.

There's always been speculation as to whether she was really convinced that people pulled out their handkerchiefs because they were so moved by her singing, or that she realized that they were really stuffing them into their mouths to control their laughter and didn't care because she loved entertaining them. In short was she a case study in self-delusion, or a sort of ahead of her time campy Dame Edna style diva of her day?

Stephen Temperley's new play, Souvenir, subtitled A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, offers a humorous and insightful look at the woman and her unusual career. Judy Kaye creates a portrayal that's sheer magic. It takes someone who's as superb a singer as she is, to capture Mrs. Jenkins' excruciatingly bad singing. But while, this is Ms. Kaye's triumph, the playwright has structured his script as a two-hander so that we can get a better handle on the ultimate in self-delusional blindness. To tap into the humor of his subject's concertizing, Temperley uses her long-time accompanist, Cosme McMoon, as the narrator.

McMoon, a would-be songwriter segues between a Greenwich Village supper club and Mrs. Jenkins' Park Avenue hotel apartment where he had his first interview as her potential employee. He needed a steady income source ("I was already twenty-nine and losing my hair ") and so, even though hearing her voice for the first time had him pop up from his piano bench like a bullet shot from a gun, he agreed to work with her. Over the ensuing sixteen years a friendship a bit like that between Alfred Uhry's Miss Daisy and her chauffeur developed. And though her voice never improved, McMoon found her staunch self-confidence amazing enough to wonder if true art might not be in that inner voice heard by people like Jenkins. Eventually he even found himself unable to appreciate a truly fine voice which leads him to declare "I heard Rosa Ponselle and something was missing".

Whether singing or speaking, Judy Kaye is an absolute delight. Thanks to Tracy Christensen's gorgeous and authentic costumes, she also looks the part. Souvenir could be an unblemished little gem were it not for the fact that Jack F. Lee, though a fine pianist, is not up to the Cosmo role in terms of charisma or remembering his lines. Perhaps if Mr. Temperley had trimmed the play a bit there would have been fewer lines for Mr. Lee to miss.

Even with flaws, Souvenir is one of the more interesting small shows around. If it's any inducement to buying a ticket (as it should be), yes, you will hear one aria in Judy Kaye's own true and truly wonderful voice!

A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins
Written by Stephen Temperley
Directed by Vivian Matalon
Cast: Judy Kaye as Florence Foster Jenkins, Jack F. Lee as Cosme McMoon
Set Design: R. Michael Miller
Costume Design: Tracy Christensen.
Lighting Design: Ann G. Wrightson
Sound Design: David Budries
Running time:2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission.
York Theater at Saint Peter’s, Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street 212-868-4444
11/19/04 to 1/02/05--extended to 1/16/05.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 6th performance
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