FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS – Remembered in Souvenir at A.C.T.

Judy Kaye plays the Park Avenue wannabe Opera Queen

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) salutes the secret diva in all of us with Stephen Temperley’s play with music, Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins directed by Vivian Matalon. This production marks the return of Judy Kaye to A.C.T. in the daring role that earned her a 2006 Tony Award nomination. Kaye last appeared on the A.C.T. stage as “Mrs. Lovett” in last season’s critically-acclaimed production of Sweeney Todd. A heartfelt, wickedly funny look at the limits of self-perception and the unpredictable nature of friendship, Souvenir imagines the story of real-life Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite and tone-deaf diva who thought she was a great soprano. Broadway’s brilliant Donald Corren (Torch Song Trilogy) plays her wry accompanist, who chronicles Florence’s unlikely rise to cult status, culminating in her infamous 1944 Carnegie Hall performance. SOUVENIR plays at A.C.T. through March 15th.


COSME MCMOON (Donald Corren) pleads with FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (Judy Kaye) to not record an album.
(All production photos by Ashley Forrette.)

The real-life Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy society eccentric, who suffered from the illusion that she was an exceptional soprano, although she couldn’t carry a tune. Nevertheless, her musical career took off when her private charity galas at the Ritz Carlton ballroom started drawing large crowds, turning her into a cult sensation. Stephen Temperley began working on the play over 25 years ago, when director and long-time partner Matalon suggested that he write a play about the deluded socialite. After three versions of the text, it was Jenkins’ relationship with her accompanist Cosme McMoon that finally cracked the story open for the playwright. “The play is about the difference between the way we see ourselves and the way the rest of the world sees us,” says Temperley. “It’s a story about a man who is nothing except self-doubting who meets a person with absolutely no self-doubts whatsoever.” Temperley’s play is a heart-warming tribute to Ms. Jenkins’ sincerity, ambition, and love of music and her unexpected friendship with the talented musician who learned to love and admire this unique woman despite her delusions.

Florence cannot resist a costume change. She is a vision of youth and beauty for Cosme’s “Serenata Mexicana” at Carnegie Hall.

It takes one of Broadway’s most celebrated singers to play the famously tone-deaf soprano. “It’s hard work to sing so badly,” says Kaye, whose Broadway triumphs include Phantom of the Opera (Tony Award), Mamma Mia! (Tony Award nomination), and On the Twentieth Century (which catapulted her to overnight stardom). “What’s the dramatic license to play Florence Foster Jenkins? Be passionate. Get loud or soft suddenly. Don’t be afraid to hoot and holler, especially in delicate arias like Verdi’s ‘Caro Nome.’ And don’t ever laugh, however hard the audience does.” No matter how deluded Jenkins might have been, Kaye makes you believe that the singer’s earsplitting sounds are, to her ears at least, beautiful music.

“Long before Judy Kaye came to A.C.T. to star in Sweeney Todd, I had been hearing rave reviews of her astonishing performance in this show,” says Artistic Director Carey Perloff. “So naturally I was thrilled when she walked into my office one day and said that nothing would make her happier than to perform Souvenir at A.C.T. Because San Francisco is an opera town, this piece will have special immediacy, but beyond that, it will resonate for everyone out there who has dreamed of doing something that they weren’t quite good enough to pull off, but fell in love with anyway.”

Florence’s “Ave Maria” is Heaven-sent.
Her “Bell Song” from Lakme is still ringing.

Add these recordings by Florence Foster Jenkins to your Classical Library (perhaps, to your Comedy Library). Click on the title to order on-line:
THE GLORY OF THE HUMAN VOICE – Disc includes: Adele’s Laughing Song (Die Fledermaus); Charmant Oiseau (La Perle Du Brésil); Serenata Mexicana; Ou va la jeune Hindoue? (Lakmé); Queen of the Night Aria (Magic Flute), and more. Miss Jenkins is accompanied by Cosme McMoon.
THE MUSE SURMOUNTED – Cosme McMoon reminisces about Florence Foster Jenkins. Miss Jenkins performs his composition, Valse Caressante.

Visit Seán on YouTube:
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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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