Florence Foster Jenkins was the Andy Kaufman of her day--asinger so awful that she became a joke unto herself, a laughingstock. Thedifference is that Kaufman knew what he was doing; it was the audience thatwasn't quite sure. Jenkins, on the other hand, deluded herself into thinkingshe was one of the world's greatest sopranos, even though it was plain toeveryone within earshot that her sense of pitch and rhythm was abysmal, and herclaim to greatness a hilariously over-the-top conceit, like Louie Andersonclaiming to be the fastest sprinter in the world.
And yet, Jenkins got so popular in the early 1940s that shebecame one of the best-known celebrities in New York, and at the age ofseventy-six played to a packed house at Carnegie Hall. When people bit theirfists trying to hold back their laughter, she thought people were soemotionally overcome by her singing that they were crying and trying tostifle their sobs.
In its latest play, Souvenir, (written by StephenTemperley, directed by Joel Sass) the Jungle Theater has mounted alovingly crafted and executed homage to the peculiar persona that was FlorenceFoster Jenkins. Was she crazy? Did she have a weird sort of genius? Judge foryourself, because Claudia Wilkens is turning in a virtuosic, pitch-perfectperformance as the woman who famously had no sense of pitch. Wilkens returnedto the stage last weekend after tripping and breaking her arm during aperformance the weekend before, but the cast on her arm did not diminish herperformance a bit; Wilkens' portrayal of the self-deluded Ms. Jenkins is simplybrilliant.
Told as a reminiscence of their years together by her pianoaccompanist, Cosme McMoon (skillfully played by Peter Vitale), the play coversthe many years they spent doing only one show a year at the Ritz-Carlton in NewYork for a selective audience of high-society notables, up through herquasi-legendary performance at Carnegie Hall and her death a month later.Claudia Wilkens flawlessly recreates the profoundly flawed intonation ofJenkins' singing, and imbues her character with a large heart and a boundlessego, making her both sympathetic and strange. As for Vitale, he is anaccomplished pianist and a capable actor, making him a great choice to playMcMoon, if for no other reason than he really plays the piano like someone whohas been doing it his whole life.
McMoon does the gig with Jenkins for money, but as the playunfolds he reveals a sense of protectiveness toward her, since Jenkins doesn'tseem to realize that the main enjoyment people get at her shows is fromlaughing at her. He knows she's awful, and he knows the audience knows, but herobliviousness to her own ineptitude gradually begins to look like a peculiarsort of heroism, like someone with no arms or legs insisting that they aregoing to finish that marathon in record time. It's sad and pathetic, but alsoendearing--because, as Wilkens portrays her, Jenkins is the embodiment of theAmerican idea that you can be anything you want to be if you just wish it hardenough. Jenkins' only real crime (other than her musical felonies) is that shewished a little too hard.
Much of the play's good-natured humor grows out of Jenkins'mind-boggling over-estimation of her own skills. When McMoon suggests that sheis slightly off-key, she insists that she has perfect pitch and sighs that thepiano must be out of tune. Upon listening to a recording of herself, she isbothered that one section isn't "perfect," and concludes that it is McMoon whomade a mistake. McMoon is flabbergasted--but, much to his dismay, the recordenjoys tremendous sales and Jenkins' star continues to rise, even as his ownsolo career flounders. He can argue with her music, but he can't argue withtheir success, however mystifying it may be.
Souvenir continues at The Jungle Theater through Dec. 21,jungletheater.com
Listen to the real Flo Jenkins here: