While it may be true that “America’s Got Talent,” a glance at YouTube clips of failed American Idol auditioners proves that the seriously delusional are alive and well and attempting in vain to sing on-key in these United States. Some have even gone on to make records.  Hong Kong immigrant William Hung titled his first CD “Inspiration,” though it’s doubtful that the final result was divine. Back in the 1960s, Pomona housewife Mrs. Elva Miller (known affectionately as “Mrs. Miller”) blithely and cluelessly massacred such 1960s hits as “Downtown” and “A Lover’s Concerto” in her vibrato-heavy, wobbly, off-key mezzo. 

Still, the would-be diva to end all would-be divas has got to be Mrs. Florence Foster Jenkins (1968-1944), a frustrated “soprano” who came into considerable fortune at the age of 60, and embarked on a “career” on the concert stage which led to her appearing at none other than Carnegie Hall.

In Souvenir (A Fantasia On The Life Of Florence Foster Jenkins), his 2005 Broadway comedy with music, Stephen Temperley introduces contemporary audiences to the “artistry” ofMrs. Jenkins, a woman so talentless and yet so innately lovable that it is no wonder audiences flocked to see her perform, yet did their best to hide from Jenkins that the tears she brought to their eyes were tears of laughter.

The role of Florence won Broadway star Judy Kaye a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress In A Play, and while Constance Hauman doesn’t quite match Kaye’s multi-layered brilliance, her excellent performance in The Falcon Theatre’s terrific intimate production of Souvenir is reason enough to head on over to Garry Marshall’s theater in Toluca Lake-adjacent Burbank.  And she’s not the only reason.

First and foremost, Souvenir is an honest-to-goodness full-fledged play, not just a series of concert highlights (or should that be lowlights?). More specifically, it is a memory play, as seen through the eyes of Cosmé McMoon, a gay pianist/composer almost 40 years Mrs. Jenkins’ junior, who took on the job as her accompanist because songwriting was not paying the rent (nor was his recently departed roommate who “moved out somewhat abruptly after a dispute over the meaning of monogamy”).

“People used to say to me, ‘Why does she do it?,’” Cosmé tells us in his opening monolog. “I always thought the better question was, ‘Why did I?’”  Certainly some of Cosmé’s willingness to lower himself to Jenkins’ level came from the realization that at age 29, he was still far from achieving the career he’d set out to have. As for Jenkins, she herself had no doubts that she had found “an accompanist at one’s own level.” (After all, not many singers have the “perfect pitch” Jenkins prided herself on.)

When first we meet Mrs. Jenkins, nothing about her high-society manner and diction (think any 1930s or 40s movie matron) gives us any hint of the astonishing shock we feel when first we hear the god-awful bleats and yelps and wails that emit from her elegantly lipsticked mouth. Over the course of Souvenir’s two acts, we will hear her slaughter the music of Mozart, Verdi, Gounod, and Brahms, among others.  We will also fall a bit in love with Mrs. J., as Cosmé certainly did.

The play’s title comes from a scene in which Cosmé quite sensibly tries to persuade Jenkins NOT to record Mozart’s all but unsingable “Queen Of The Night.” No, replies Mrs. Flo. “Queen Of The Night” is the perfect choice because “in days to come, when my voice is not perhaps as strong as it is now, (we shall) be able to hear it as it once was! In all its glory! A lovely souvenir.”

At moments like this, Cosmé can do nothing but stifle his frustration at having to humor Jenkins (after all, his paycheck depends on it). The scene is which Cosmé attempts to explain syncopation to the rhythmically challenged Jenkins, is almost worth the price of admission.  Yet persevere Cosmé does, and holds his tongue yet again.

No wonder it comes as a shock to Mrs. Flo when, in one of Souvenir’s most memorable scenes, the had-it-up-to-here pianist finally lets his boss have it. His subsequent realization that he has gone much too far leads to an touching moment in which Cosmé uses his own gifts as a singer/pianist to charm Jenkins into forgiving him.  (“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. . .”)

The second act is devoted to Jenkins’ preparation for her concert at Carnegie Hall and the actual concert itself, for which Mrs. Flo has designed a different costume for each aria and song, including Gounod’s “Jewel Song” from Faust, Mozart’s aforementioned “The Queen of the Night” from The Magic Flute, and, as a tribute to “our boys in uniform, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” sung in military khaki.

“Singing” all these songs and arias—and more—is renowned soprano Hauman, whose background almost exclusively in the field of opera does not hint at the comedic gifts she reveals in Souvenir. Sublimely convinced of talents she does not possess, Hauman’s Florence never crosses over into caricature, and her facial reactions are a joy to behold. Mrs. Jenkins’s caterwauling could easily become (pardon the expression) “one-note” in lesser hands, but Hauman keeps coming up with new twists and turns in Flo’s vocalizing that keep her performance ever fresh and surprising.  The Florence Foster Jenkins she creates is so totally lovable that it’s easy to see why her friends, fans, and Cosmé adored her.

To play Cosmé requires a triple-threat performer, but not of the usual three threats. Besides carrying the greater part of Souvenir’s spoken dialog, Cosmé must croon “Crazy Rhythm,” “It All Depends On You,” “Violets For Your Furs” with the best of them and play the piano with finesse.  Brent Schindele is one of the few in Los Angeles equipped to play the part and he nails it from start to finish. Schindele’s facial reactions to Florence’s wrong notes and his double-takes at her mistaken self-confidence are priceless, and if he is a bit too much the straight-arrow all-American-boy to truly match the gay-as-a-goose Cosmé, his performance is a winner—and makes this Souvenir a real two-person show.

Director Gregg W. Brevoort deserves high marks for his staging, and he is aided by an excellent design team.  Mike Jesperson’s sitting-room set is simple but elegant, and Nick McCord’s lighting make switches from the “present day” of 1964 to Souvenir’s 1932-1944 flashbacks easy to follow.  Terri A. Lewis has designed a dozen or so spectacular costume changes for Hauman, period matronly chic in the first act and a bevy of over-the-top “theme gowns” for the second.

It’s not often that a play can provide laughs and gasps in almost equal measure, but Souvenir does just that, plus a tear or two. In the gifted hands of Hauman and Shindele, Souvenir (it means “memory” in French) is quite memorable indeed.

Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
February 10, 2010
                                                                       Photos: Chelsea Sutton

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