Wrong Note Rag

Holiday last chances and thankful endings

I can still remember my parents and grandparents talking about Florence Foster Jenkins with great hilarity. My maternal grandmother had seen her perform on several occasions, having been, to hear her tell it, quite the gal about town in the late 1920s and 1930s. When I was a child, her favorite epithet to hurl at our local opera company’s Mimi, Butterfly, Queen of the Night, or Adele was “Florence Foster Jenkins could have sung it better.” Followed by a mean-spirited chuckle that was shared by everyone except me.

Jenkins, I have come to learn, was a notoriously wretched and tone-deaf singer who nonetheless through the force of will and a seemingly bottomless purse, foisted herself on the New York musical scene from 1929 until1944 in a series of recitals that catapulted her to fame, not because of her talent but because of her lack, and an apparent blindness to her own inability. She became a kind of freak show, a novelty act, an oblivious satire on herself and opera. Perhaps the closest analogy one can draw today is to people like William Hung from American Idol, whose antic atonality and freakishness made him a celebrity for a moment. Jenkins, however, was not driven by a need for fame, so repellently prevalent in our culture at the moment, as by a passion for the music. She did not cultivate herself as a freak show but really thought she was an exponent of the music. Her ineptness is really tragic in a classic sense—where hubris can lead to destruction.

That, at least, is the premise of “Souvenir,” a play with music by Stephen Temperley, which follows Jenkins through her brief but unforgettable career. Yet, this gentle, nuanced play is about so much more. It is about the longing of the heart to express itself through art. It is about the will and kindness and a gracious and infinitely less cruel world than the one we know today, a world where it would be considered bad manners to tell someone they stink as a singer, particularly when that singer was raising thousands for noble causes.

Temperley casts the story as a memory told by Cosme McMoon, who was Jenkins’ accompanist and later friend and champion. Set 20 years after Jenkins’ death, McMoon remembers Jenkins’ passion for music, unshakable confidence, and the truly awful singing that resulted. Over the course of the play, as we get to know Jenkins, we travel the same journey as McMoon—from utter shock at the animalistic hooting of her singing to a tender appreciation of the essentially good woman whose vocal instrument is not the equal of her soul. When McMoon finally says, of a truly remarkable singer compared to Jenkins, “I heard Rosa Ponselle and something was missing,” we understand how he has come to care about and appreciate not Jenkins’ vocal production but her human spirit.

The play has a kind of sweetness to it, and for all its entertainment and hilarity, particularly for anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the arias in the show, is a not-so-subtle rebuke to our own culture, which is so quick to condemn, so delighted in the public evisceration of someone’s talent and only too happy to vote anyone not achieving an arbitrary perfection off the island. It’s not that Jenkins’ singing could ever be construed as even passable from an artistic standpoint, but that there was a time when we treated one another better as a rule of human interaction.

None of this is to undermine the wicked fun of hearing the supremely talented Judy Kaye bellow her way through the role. Kaye has an openness and honesty about her that is singularly appealing, and she balances the big moments with delicate, almost fragile moments, that create a fully realized character, particularly in the final moments when McMoon lets us hear what Jenkins heard. It is heartbreaking and powerful.

Donald Corren as McMoon is both the narrator and a central character in the piece. As his respect for Jenkins grows, so too does his honest appraisal of himself and his life as an artist. It’s a wonderful performance, punctuated by dead-on comic timing and suave charm that is the perfect foil for Kaye.

Vivian Matalon’s sensitive direction never skimps on the humor, yet in capturing the heart of the piece, it hits all the notes perfectly. Unfortunately, the show has just posted its closing notice and will only run through January 8. This is a noteworthy and welcome play that’s worth running out to see.

“A Broadway Diva Christmas,” on the other hand, could suck the holiday spirit out of even the most ardent reconstituted Scrooge. This limping variety show lacks only the Geritol and Preparation H commercials to be a complete holiday torment. The horrors begin with Tedi Marsh, part of a backup group called The Jingle Belles, bumping and grinding through “Silver Bells,” and it only gets worse. Ostensibly, this holiday celebration brings together Broadway veterans to regale us with diva-like performances of holiday standards.

And so, we get Ellen Greene, singing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” without hitting a single final consonant. Maya Davis does a sexualized “Little Drummer Boy” and in “Oh Holy Night,” demonstrates her proficiency in the Diva Yell, a technique that celebrates vocal pyrotechnics over any kind of human substance. Her performances are so shallow and grotesque that one mourns the sham humanity of the randomly and incorrectly applied diva moniker. Surely, director Michael Duling could have found some glint of a real person in there, but as with Kathy Brier and Marla Schaffel, he just lets them go and they turn each song into a self-indulgent mess.

The only bright spot in the evening is Christine Pedi, who is trotted out as the comic. Her “Twelve Days of Christmas” gives her an opportunity to do her impressive impressions of everyone from Edith Bunker to Carol Channing, but her talent and abundant charm notwithstanding, even that ends up feeling canned and dated. The “trick” is that the audience picks the people she will imitate, but can’t we have someone who isn’t either dead, remembered primarily by our parents, or done better by any number of drag queens?

The staging is pedestrian, the clothes downright misogynistic, and the whole experience leaves one crying out for Florence Foster Jenkins and an end to the holidays.

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