CONNECTICUT CRITICS CIRCLE

The Fractured Soprano: Souvenir at Seven Angels Theatre:

By David Begelman

The career of Florence Foster Jenkins, the famed opera singer, was a unique phenomenon in the annals of performing arts. She fancied herself a great vocal talent, although she is the only celebrated soprano whose rare accomplishment was to produce a note on pitch. Her singing was artlessly bereft of all the qualities necessary for a career. Bel canto was for her an impossible dream; legato evaporated when she performed, and passable dramatic interpretation went right out the window on the first few notes she sang. In a word, she was completely awful.

She packed concert halls to overflowing. Even untrained ears were aware of the terribleness of what they heard. For those who felt happy in discovering some kind of clarity in the universe, it was clear as anything could possibly be that Florence Foster Jenkins as a diva was rock bottom horrendous.

One critic described Mme. Jenkins as “a dumpy coloratura soprano” whose “voice was not even mediocre—it was preposterous! She clucked and squawked, trumpeted and quavered. She couldn’t carry a tune.” Another mused, “She sounds like a cuckoo in its cups.” Yet her concerts bulged at the seams with enthusiasts who paid outrageous prices to scalpers for seats. She was, in short, something else, drawing them in like moths to a flame.

Among her devotees numbered Cole Porter who, rumor has it, had to jab his foot with his cane in order to prevent himself from laughing. He never missed a Foster Jenkins performance. Other fans included Beatrice Lillie, Enrico Caruso, Sir Thomas Beecham, Gian-Carlo Menotti, and yesteryear’s leading coloratura, Lily Pons, who was reduced to tears after hearing a performance. Tallulah Bankhead reportedly had to be carried out of her box at a performance, and another actress became hysterical to a point of disability. At her concerts, many in the audience had to stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths to muffle sounds of giggling.

Seven Angels Theatre has mounted Souvenir, a delightful two-person play by Stephen Temperley, about the soprano. It is based upon much of what we already know about her. To set the record straight, there is little available evidence to suggest that Foster Jenkins was a fraud or that she knew how bad she was, playing audiences for money and personal attention. On the contrary, we have it on the best authority, Cosme McMoon, for many years her personal accompanist on the piano, that the lady was quite deluded in her belief she was a great talent.

In the current production, two seasoned performers, Semina DeLaurentis and Tom Frey, team up to play the redoubtable diva and her patient but increasingly exasperated accompanist. The two performers are perfectly cast opposite each other, and possess individual talents of a high order. These are not confined merely to their acting skills—which are considerable. The two treat the audience to a surprise: they are each of them exceedingly accomplished singers. Mr. Frey, if only to redeem the atmosphere of the badly acquitted arias of Cosme’s employer, Mme. Foster Jenkins, in his spare moments treats us to his vocal rendition of pop songs like “One For My Baby” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. For my money, Mr. Frey would do quite well as a cabaret singer in any of our plush clubs in New York City, comparing favorably to artists like Michael Feinstein and the now deceased Bobby Short.

Ms. DeLaurentis exhibits vocal mastery from the outset of her performance on stage, if only for the reason that it takes a talent of a high order to shriek off pitch as expertly enough to have the audience virtually rolling in the aisles every time she opens her mouth. To sing badly enough to be a believable vocal horror is an art—and not an insignificant one, at that.

Lest an audience imagine Ms. DeLaurentis is not up to the task of putting in a performance on a different wave-length altogether, loosen up. At the end of the second act of Souvenir, she appears singing an Ave Maria—only this time in a manner Cosme declares is the way Foster Jenkins in her own head thinks she sounds. It is, of course, a beautiful rendition: in full voice, on pitch, and gorgeously executed. The transformation is a stunning moment in an otherwise terrific show, and perhaps its only deeply emotional one. Without becoming corny, the number might well bring one to the verge of tears because it resonates tellingly with the realization in all of us about the distance between our aspirations and the actuality of our talents.

Scene Design by Daniel Husvar is well appointed and Susan Kinkade’s Lighting Design graced the performance of the two principals. Daniel Brunk’s Sound ensured that every note was heard, and Julia Kiley’s direction made the most of two-performer interactions without lapsing into tedium or repetition.

Souvenir also treats us to Foster Jenkins arias in full, albeit zany, regalia, as rendered by costume designer Renee Purdy. These include a wildly garish Mexican costume garnished with carnations, a staple for the diva’s rendition of Clavelitos, an outfit with enormous white angel’s wings as the Angel of Inspiration, and other irrepressible creations.

After a taxi accident in 1943, the undaunted Foster Jenkins announced that she “could sing a higher F than ever before.” Proving that the dotty diva was able to overcome adversity in her own inimitable way, as those familiar with her life well know.

Souvenir runs at The Seven Angels Theatre at Plank Road in Waterbury from April 17 to May 11. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 203-757-4676, or online at sevenangelstheatre.org

This review will be published in New Fairfield’s Citizen News.

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