There was nothing pretty about Florence Foster Jenkins' singing. But there might be something beautiful about it.
Foster Jenkins is one of the two characters in Madison Theatre Guild's Souvenir, which opened Oct. 14 at the Bartell Theatre. She's odd, compelling - and utterly real.
"She was a real person," says director Betty Diamond. "She was a New York society matron, and she believed she was a soprano with perfect pitch. But really, she had a very, very terrible voice, and what is really hard to believe is that she didn't know it."
Foster Jenkins decided to give a recital once a year. "At first it was by invitation only," Diamond says. "She became quite a hit, but - at least according to the play - she didn't understand it was because she was so bad. People would go to the concerts and muffle their laughter. She would see them with their handkerchiefs over their faces and think they were crying because of her music."
Souvenir, by British playwright Stephen Temperley, follows Foster Jenkins' story, from her first performance to the zenith of her career as a vocalist, a concert at Carnegie Hall. Her companion on the journey is pianist and composer Cosme McMoon, from whose point of view the story is told.
"He's having trouble getting his music performed, and he takes the gig because he needs the money," Diamond says. From that point on, the two are stuck with each other.
What makes the play worthwhile, she says, is how it treats Foster Jenkins, a figure it would be easy to simply poke fun at.
"She is a comic figure, but she's not a farcical figure," she says. Temperley "enables us to see her absurdity, and at the same time, he makes us feel enormous compassion and affection for her, and that's a really neat trick."
Because the music in the show is performed live, casting the two roles was more challenging than just finding competent musicians. "You can't just sing badly, because in many cases, she was very, very close," says Terry Kiss Frank, who plays Foster Jenkins. "There are times she was right on pitch-wise, but her tone is not pleasant, or her rhythm is freaky." Taras Nahirniak plays McMoon.
Although the playwright probably takes some poetic license, Diamond says, the songs Foster Jenkins sang and her costumes are historically accurate. "If you go to YouTube and type in her name, you'll be able to hear her sing various arias," Diamond says. "And I strongly urge you to do that."