They say that Cole Porter had to pound his cane into his foot to keep from laughing. Tallulah Bankhead was carried out of her box seat, helpless with hysterics. Others in the audience stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle the mirth amid shouts of “Brava, Diva!”
Nevertheless, Florence Jenkins, New York socialite renowned for her extravagant costumes and tone-deaf recitals, warbled on.
The most astonishing thing about “Souvenir,” the two-actor play that just opened at Fredericksburg’s Riverside Center for the Performing Arts (under stringent social distancing conditions) is that it’s true. There really was a Flo Jenkins who couldn’t carry a tune in a ten-gallon bucket, yet had 1930s high society at her feet. A voice that would have had her thrown out of small town music halls became a hit where “king of the hill” meets “top of the heap.” The arts capital of the western world had never heard anything so bad, and they couldn’t get enough of it. And they couldn’t stop laughing.
Riverside’s own Patrick A’Hearn directs “Souvenir” with clarity and restraint. Told from the point of view of Jenkins’ pianist, Cosme McMoon (Carson Eubank), “Souvenir” covers the 12-year period from Jenkins’ invitation-only recitals in the Ritz-Carlton ballroom to her only public performance at Carnegie Hall.
Eubank is a find in this role. His natural musicianship and fine voice are a counterpoint to Jenkins’ agonizing high-pitched quests for the right note. Andrea Kahane, a trained opera singer in ‘real life,’ strikes the delicate balance between the pushiness and complacent self-promotion that started the cycle of recitals and the touch of innocence that made her friends want to protect her from the truth. When she modestly proclaims that she is a “coloratura soprano” and intends to sing Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” (a do-not-try-this-at-home aria), we can only groan in disbelief.
In an inspired stroke, A’Hearn added a few moments of actual recordings of Jenkins’ singing which she had made as her own vanity project and pronounced ‘souvenirs’ for posterity when her voice was “no longer as strong.”
There is laughter for sure—it would take superhuman effort not to laugh at one so oblivious; but there are questions. She trusted McMoon to tell her the truth, but he continued to lie to her. In one soliloquy revealing his own musical Stockholm Syndrome, he questions the “modern mania for accuracy” and suggests that notes are just “sign posts” to help the singer go in the right direction. Of course this is nonsense, but his need to see that maybe her singing wasn’t so bad is a clue to his own self-defensive confusion.
But was she in on the joke and just continuing an elaborate ruse in order to feed her obsession with performance? Some say she was, that no one is that unaware. But the bulk of evidence suggests that she was not, and “Souvenir” clearly takes that tack. Knowing that there were those who didn’t hear her as she heard herself, she had refused to open herself up to the general public—until the 1944 performance at Carnegie Hall filled with celebrities, friends, and the eagerly curious.
Who would tell her that it was a bad idea? That her singing was indescribably awful?
The critics would.
And they did. Was it mere coincidence that she died of a heart attack five days later?
“Souvenir” softens the edge of this pathos with the observation that the music Jenkins heard in her head was quite different from the music she produced. To that end, Ms. Kahane returns to sing the exquisitely beautiful “Ave, Maria” the way it should be sung, the way Flo Jenkins surely believed she was singing it.
Brava, Diva. Brava.
Culpeper County resident Maggie Lawrence, a retired English and drama teacher, is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She taught in Culpeper and Fauquier public schools for 22 years.
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