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Souvenir...revisits rhythm-challenged diva

Jul 03 2008
Jan Sjostrom | Palm Beach Daily News

Most performers try to sing their best when they're on stage. That won't do when you're portraying the tone-deaf and rhythm-challenged Florence Foster Jenkins. According to one critic, she sounded like "a cuckoo in her cups." But Jenkins "heard nothing but bravos," said J. Barry Lewis, who directs Stephen Temperley's play Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach. The show opens Saturday. Jenkins reasoned that if Frank Sinatra's singing caused women to faint in the aisles, there was nothing unusual about the hoots of laughter and thunderous applause she inspired. Her self-produced private concerts were one of the hottest tickets in New York during the 1930s and '40s. Jenkins didn't start performing until she was in her mid-40s. She was 76 when her career climaxed in a sold-out public concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944. Souvenir tells Jenkins' story through the eyes of Cosme McMoon, her longtime accompanist, who recounts the tale while entertaining diners at a restaurant in New York in 1964, 20 years after her death. McMoon came to New York as a serious musician but linked up with Jenkins when he found himself strapped for funds. "He instantly has dreams of all the things he could accomplish with her financial resources," said Tom Kenaston, who plays McMoon. "Then he discovers that she's out of her mind and sings like a cat being stomped on in a parking lot." During the course of the play, he comes to respect and admire his employer, and seeks to shield her from the knowledge that she's something of a laughingstock. "The great question of the play is was she crazy or just delusional?" Lewis said. "We don't know. We only know she believed in her ability and that people found pleasure in it." It's possible that some people found more pleasure in the money Jenkins' concerts earned than they did in the music. The singer donated proceeds from her concerts to the many charities she supported. "She was a grand dame," Lewis said. "She had her followers, and they did not tell her no." Jenkins enjoyed playing her own and leading opera singers' recordings for guests and inviting them to vote for the best version. Needless to say, the winner was rarely in dispute. When interviewed later in life, McMoon said audience members would cover their outbursts of laughter with loud applause. Jenkins attributed negative reactions to professional jealousy or hooligans. She didn't hesitate to tackle some of the most strenuous arias in the operatic repertoire. Her cacophonous rendition of the Queen of the Night's vertiginous aria in Mozart's The Magic Flute is legendary. Jenkins' musical shortcomings weren't the only aspects of her concerts that tempted audiences to laugh. She wore outlandish costumes she designed herself, most notably the flowing white gown, tiara and angel wings that embellished her performances of Ave Maria. She also dramatized her shows by dancing or acting to the music. The role of Jenkins can be a plum. Judy Kaye picked up a Tony nomination in 2006 for her portrayal of the would-be diva. For Elizabeth Dimon, who plays the character in Dramaworks' production, the biggest challenge she faces while yelping Jenkins' musical numbers is "trying not to laugh at each other and ourselves." Dimon overcomes that problem by concentrating on how important music was to Jenkins. "I think her fame and people's interest in her came from her real passion for the music and her ability to bring that to life," the actress said. "They saw her doing that with all this truth...and yet she was completely off-key." She was an entertainer, whether she understood her gifts or not. "It's not that people came to hear her sing," Lewis said. "They came to watch her perform. There's a difference." His hope is that in watching Jenkins dare all without a qualm, audiences, too, will be encouraged to connect with their inner artists. Florence Foster Jenkins charity-minded Florence Foster Jenkins was born in 1868 in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., to wealthy parents who discouraged her ambitions to become a musician. She was 44 when she started performing privately. She financed the shows with the fortune she inherited from her parents and personally sold the tickets to a hand-picked clientele. Tickets to her annual recitals at The Ritz-Carlton in New York were in such demand that the police had to be called in to control gate-crashers. The portly and big-busted Jenkins performed in elaborate costumes she designed herself and danced or acted to the music. Her repertoire consisted of art songs, operatic arias, popular songs and numbers she or her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, composed. The tone-deaf diva's fans included Enrico Caruso, Gian Carlo Menotti, Lily Pons, Beatrice Lillie and Cole Porter. Tallulah Bankhead laughed so hard during one of Jenkins' concerts that she had to be carried out of the hall. Although her admirers undoubtedly were amused, many people also respected Jenkins' sincerity and dedication. Arturo Toscanini sent flowers to her funeral. Jenkins donated proceeds from her concerts to charity and contributed generously to the support of needy young artists. In 1944, Jenkins, then 76, finally heeded calls for a public performance. She rented Carnegie Hall and sold all 3,000 seats, turning away 2,000 prospective ticket buyers. She died one month after the concert.