Asolo Repertory Theater celebrates the diva in each of us with the hilarious musical - Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins by Stephen Temperley. Real life Tony Award winning Broadway diva Judy Kaye (Phantom of the Opera & Mamma Mia!) makes a rare appearance in Sarasota in the lead role. Donald Corren (Torch Song Trilogy) plays her accompanist, the man who chronicles Florence's unlikely rise to cult status and unexpected success.
Asolo Rep also welcomes the design team from the original Broadway Production: scenic designer R. Michael Miller (Eminent Domain and The Boys in Autumn on Broadway), lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson (August: Osage County on Broadway), sound designer David Budries (Ah, Wilderness! on Broadway), and costume designer Tracy Christensen, who created the elaborate opera outfits worn by Kaye for the many costumes changes in Florence's Carnegie Hall performance.
Souvenir runs from June 5 - 27, 2009 on Asolo Rep's mainstage in the Mertz Theatre. Tickets are priced from $20-$58 and may be purchased on the website at www.asolo.org, or by calling the box office at 941-351-8000 (toll free 800-361-8388. Opening night is on Friday, June 5, 2009.
The real-life Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy society eccentric, who suffered from the delusion 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 Vivian 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 brought the story to light for Stephen. 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.
"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."
It takes one of Broadway's most celebrated singers to play the famously tone-deaf soprano. 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.
"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."
Program Notes: by Michael Donald Edwards
This is a musical about a woman who could not sing.
Souvenir is, on the surface, a delightful comic confection about the life of Florence Foster Jenkins and her relationship with her accompanist and friend Cosmé McMoon. The play chronicles the startling rise of Foster Jenkins' rather unorthodox musical career. It is a poignant exploration of the nature of hope and the right we each have to dream.
For, you see, this is a musical about a woman who could not sing - but who believed, with ever fiber of her being, that she was a world class vocalist.
Florence Foster Jenkins was one of those phenomena that could only happen in New York City. Though she was notorious for her inability to sustain notes, as well as her near-total lack of pitch and rhythm, the annual concerts she gave in the ballroom of Manhattan's Ritz-Carleton hotel were outrageously popular. The events were semi-public benefits for her favorite charities. Her friends came to support her, and word of mouth about the events spread like wildfire. She became an extremely unconventional singing sensation - people would go to the concerts for the sheer novelty and amusement factor rather than for the music. But what was truly extraordinary about her was that no matter how The Audience responded to her voice, even if their laughter was audible to her onstage, she continued to believe in her talent with an unshakeable certainty. When she heard them, she claimed the laughs came from jealous rivals.
McMoon's part in all this was equally noteworthy. Her accompanist for over a decade, he was a truly talented pianist and a composer in his own right. It is perhaps a case of perfect irony that his only opportunity to play his own music at Carnegie Hall came when Foster Jenkins was asked to give a recital there.
This is a musical about a woman who could not sing, yet who reached a pinnacle only dreamed about by most performers.
Her performances often left her audiences scratching their heads. Was it all an elaborate joke? The signs point to no. Did she ever truly know that her public was not completely adoring? If so, she chose to ignore the fact. Why didn't McMoon, or anyone, say something to her about how she sounded - and why didn't someone try to stop her?
It is this last question that is perhaps the most potent. And the answer illuminates the central theme of Souvenir:
This is a musical about a woman who could not sing, a woman who lacked all vocal talent but possessed boundless reserves of belief and self-confidence. A woman who, through her tenacity and sheer devotion to music transformed into an artist despite it all. The purity of her belief was the art.
And who among us has the right to destroy that?
Photo credit: Ashley Forrette