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Brilliant to her own ears

Singing brashly off-key, Judy Kaye hits all the right notes as a socialite with delusions of singing greatness.

October 20, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Those of you with a shrieking Caruso at home have no doubt learned to accept those off-key dips and slides. Florence Foster Jenkins, a real life society matron from the first half of the 20th century, tested the tolerance of her listeners in ways that went beyond even the most horrendous of shower serenades.

When this diva opened her mouth, all the cliches seemingly came true -- mirrors cracked, babies wailed and dogs howled. To think that she not only gave private recitals but achieved a cult following is one of the loonier footnotes in entertainment history.

The sound of Jenkins' voice, as exactingly rendered by Judy Kaye in Stephen Temperley's "Souvenir," is like a cross between a smoke alarm and a death rattle. Suffice it to say, a police officer within earshot would have a public duty to investigate.

Subtitled "A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins," this amiable two-character play with music, which opened Wednesday at the Brentwood Theatre, explores the mentality behind the earsplitting mayhem. Is it chutzpah or madness that keeps this warbler from putting a sock in it? Or as her accompanist, Cosme McMoon (a superbly dry Donald Corren) asks in utter disbelief the first time he plays for her: "What was she hearing? ... What was going on in her head?"

This remount of "Souvenir," which enjoyed a two-month run on Broadway last season, continues to spin a touching comic tale out of a subject that in lesser hands could easily turn into a one-note joke.

That it doesn't owes much to the sensitivity of Kaye, who earned a Tony nomination for her performance. She delivers the cacophony at full farcical blast yet never loses sight of her character's tone-deaf innocence. Her Florence is assured of her talent; she knows it in her heart to be true. And why shouldn't it be? Her desire to be great is as vast as her inherited fortune.

Yet for all her seemingly impregnable confidence, poignant doubts can't help but crack through. As the snobby remarks and mispronounced French phrases piling up in her conversation hint, she's a woman who needs to shore up a shaky sense of self-worth. If it takes caterwauling through repertory, so be it. She'll even throw in "Ave Maria" and, heaven help us, the impossibly difficult Queen of the Night aria in "The Magic Flute."

Not that these little concerts of hers at New York's Ritz Carlton, conveniently located just downstairs from her palatial suite, are mere displays of insecurity run amok. As ludicrous a figure as she may seem (and it helps to be reminded that the historic Jenkins not only performed in public but cut records), she has her own theories about her craft.

"Nothing is more detrimental to good singing than this modern mania for accuracy," she says. "A vocal artist must claim some latitude."

Pity poor Cosme, who must suffer her ambulance-like vibrato. This fictionalized account tells the story through his recollections. He harks back 30-odd years to their first encounter: He's a songwriter struggling to pay the rent after his latest male "roommate" has walked out, she's loaded and in need of a piano player willing to share the humiliation of appearing onstage with her.

Their budding relationship humanizes a situation that could easily become a cockeyed skit, which it more or less does during their final public engagement -- a sold-out evening at Carnegie Hall for which Florence dons a parade of kitschy outfits. It's a scene the late comic Andy Kaufman, who also played the illustrious venue, would have understood better than anyone -- particularly when the handkerchiefs can no longer keep back the choking laughter of concert-goers.

"Souvenir" prolongs the gag a bit too long. (The play in general could be streamlined.) But the tone is never derisive. Temperley recognizes something poignantly universal in Jenkins' delusion -- the fantasy of artistic triumph that lies behind all the screenplays in desk drawers and the impromptu karaoke numbers performed at high speeds on the freeway. This is a must-see for anyone who's ever delivered an Oscar speech to the bathroom mirror.

Vivian Matalon's production, trimmed with just a few signposts of five-star luxury, never lets the funny business get too far ahead of the feeling. That is quite a feat. Those first mangled notes are hard to recover from. The hilarity quickly gives way, however, to a psychological curiosity that's delicately explored by two actors beautifully committed to making unbeautiful music together.



Where: Brentwood Theatre,

Veterans Administration grounds, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays (dark Oct. 31)

Ends: Nov. 12

Price: $35 to $60

Contact: (213) 365-3500,

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Judy Kaye...Florence Foster Jenkins

Donald Corren...Cosme McMoon

Written by Stephen Temperley. Directed by Vivian Matalon. Musical Supervisor Tom Helm. Sets by R. Michael Miller. Costumes by Tracy Christensen. Lights by Ann G. Wrightson. Sound by David Budries. Production Stage Manager Jack Gianino.

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