Judy Kaye and Donald Corren forge a bond with each other and the audience at the Asolo.
By Kay Kipling
The idea of paying to hear an atrocious, tone-deaf singer perform might seem an unlikely one. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what thousands apparently did to hear Florence Foster Jenkins back in the 1930s and ’40s. And certainly thousands more have paid to see Souvenir, Stephen Temperley’s play (subtitled a "fantasia") about Florence and her loyal accompanist, portrayed by Judy Kaye and Donald Corren in performances on Broadway and around the country and now at the Asolo Rep.
The reasons why are pondered in Temperley’s work, which opens in 1964 with pianist Cosme McMoon (Corren) reminiscing about his days with Florence on the 20th anniversary of her death. When the two met, Cosme was a young, hopeful musician-composer with a number of homosexual friends and the occasional lover. Florence (Kaye) was an affluent socialite who felt her friends were encouraging her to broaden her recital base. Convinced that she’s a great coloratura singer, Florence (who has a heart of gold if an ear of tin) decides to hold larger recitals for charity in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom.
Cosme’s eager to make both a name for himself and some money, but there’s no way he can be prepared for what happens when Florence opens her mouth to sing. Corren’s reactions throughout the play–from appalled to desperate to searching for just the right careful phrasing not to offend his new patron–are always fun to watch, and Broadway veteran Kaye, of course, is a mistress of the vocal acrobatics Florence performs as she murders Mozart and other classical music legends. She fervently believes, "What matters most is the music inside your head"; how can Cosme tell her the truth about what others hear with her wildly off-key delivery?
Over time, though, their relationship develops despite Florence’s firmly fixed delusions. As envisioned by Temperley and embodied by Kaye, Florence does have great verve and commitment (or maybe she needs to be committed), and for Cosme, and the crowds who come to hear her, that helps explain the devotion. (Florence, naturally, never hears anyone laughing at her, and the question hangs over how much her "fans" love her and how much they just find her hilarious).
It is too much for Cosme, though, when the pair produce a recording, to which Florence listens with great pleasure until she feels she hears something a bit "awry"–not in her vocalizations, but in his playing! The inevitable explosion occurs, but in the end the bond between the two is even stronger–strong enough to take them both to a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall.
Corren and Kaye have worked together for quite a while on Souvenir, and the audience feels there is a bond between them, too. Wonderful as Kaye is on all of Florence’s numbers (and the costumes alone during the Carnegie Hall gig are a comedy feast), one could still tire of hearing music sung badly if it weren’t for the connection we feel between Cosme and Florence and the actors who play them. And Temperley’s play offers some food for thought about what drives the rest of us, too. As Florence says, "Without the risk of failure, there can be no chance of success." Maybe that’s a motto to keep in mind.
Souvenir continues through June 28 at the Asolo Rep; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.