by Gail M. Burns
“There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others.”– Thelonious Monk
Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) sang a lot of notes that were less right – there are recordings that give irrefutable proof of her vocal ineptitude – and yet for the last 32 years of her life she was a popular performer, culminating in a final, sold-out recital at Carnegie Hall. She considered herself a coloratura soprano with perfect pitch, and, while she rehearsed obsessively, she retained complete confidence in her talent and that of her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (1901-1980).
The play “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” by Stephen Temperley, currently on the boards at Oldcastle, is narrated by McMoon and focuses on the artistic relationship between him and “Lady Florence” as she often signed herself in autographs. Like Foster Jenkins, McMoon had no musical career outside of their collaboration, and after her death he abandoned music entirely.
Note that Temperley calls this a fantasia. It is his imaginings and musings on these two artists’ working lives together. While many of the events described, costumes worn, and songs “sung” are true to life, we have no record of what Foster Jenkins and McMoon actually thought and felt at the time.
“Souvenir” is thus an intimate, two-person play, requiring performers who are musicians as well as actors. I know that these days having performers play instruments on stage is all the rage, with musicians unions rightfully outraged over the practice, but this is a play about musicians, and so finding two specific multi-talented artists is key. Director Nathan Stith has scored big time with Oldcastle stalwart Tim Howard and newcomer Kaia Monroe. They have a genuine chemistry together that welcomes you in to Temperley’s imaginings of this unique relationship.
Howard is as comfortable at the keyboard as he is addressing the audience or dealing directly with the driven and possibly delusional Foster Jenkins. Monroe allows us to laugh, as audiences did, at Foster Jenkins musical antics, while embracing the woman and artist within.
It is very, very hard to sing badly when you can sing well, which Monroe can and does in the final moments of the show. Monroe also brings great comedic flair to the role, which Foster Jenkins probably lacked in real life. She took herself and her art very seriously.
Adding greatly to the delight of the proceedings are Ken Mooney’s simple and glamorous set and his handsome costumes. As the play moves through several decades Monroe wears a different outfit in each scene which makes her every entrance a special surprise. Mooney also recreates quite faithfully some of Foster Jenkins’ stage costumes – notably the ethnic ensemble she wore to perform the Mexican-born McMoon’s “Serenata Mexicana”; and the famous outfit inspired by Howard Chandler Christy’s painting “Stephen Foster and the Angel of Inspiration” – which give a good idea of how ludicrous her recitals looked, as well as sounded.
Could Foster Jenkins hear that the notes she was hitting were nowhere near the ones the composer wrote? No one knows, but in life she sang boldly and badly, always expressing great confidence in her talent. This is the conundrum – Did she not know (how could she not know?) how she sounded? Or did the beauty of the music she heard in her head and heart actually drown out the reality?
In real life Foster Jenkins was married briefly as a young woman to Frank Thornton Jenkins, who she left flat when he gave her syphilis. Penicillin was not available until late in Foster Jenkins’ life, and the effects of the disease and/or its supposed treatments – including arsenic and mercury – may have contributed to her musical deficiencies and delusions.
That is a sadly plausible explanation for her behavior, but it is also akin to all those stories explaining the miracles of the Bible in scientific terms. Foster Jenkins may have suffered from syphilitic delusions and hearing loss, but that doesn’t change the fact that she had this astonishing career in spite of whatever caused her to be so alarmingly confident in a talent that she clearly did not possess.
A bigger question is why people attended her recitals. She interpreted the stifled laughter and tears she witnessed as people being overcome with emotion by her artistry, but there is a collaborative cruelty of which those audiences are culpable unless they assumed she was in on the joke, which by all accounts she was not.
Temperley’s script skirts around questions of illness, madness, and the influence her live-in companion and manager St. Clair Bayfield had on her life and career. His is a love story about art, about two people devoted to music in ways that were actually neither popular nor lucrative but who together, against all odds, realized great success that they could not have found separately. Both the remnants of reality and the play raise important questions about art and what it means to be an artist.
The Oldcastle Theatre Company production of “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins” by Stephen Temperley, directed by Nathan Stith, runs June 17-25, 2022, at the Bennington Performing Arts Center, 331 Main Street in Bennington, VT. CAST: Kaia Monroe as Florence Foster Jenkins and Tim Howard as Cosmé McMoon. Scenic and costume design by Ken Mooney, lighting design by Michael Giannitti, sound design by Cory Wheat. Production Stage Manager Kristine Schlachter.
Tickets are $25–$35. Performances are Wednesday–Saturday at 7:30 pm and Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm, with a Pay What You Will night on Wednesday, June 22. Face masks are required when in the building. Get tickets online at oldcastletheatre.org/tickets, by phone at 802-447-0564, or in person 90 minutes prior to each performance.