One Note | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

One Note 

Northlight's Souvenir: Madame Flo was a hilariously awful singer. Plot it’s not.



Michael Brosilow

Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was a New York society lady and amateur opera singer who compared herself to divas like Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini but sounded like a slide whistle in terrible pain. Known as the "Terror of the High Cs," she lacked rhythm, pitch, tone, talent, and, crucially, self-awareness. What she had instead were sincerity, ego, some artistic feeling, and a bunch of money. Naturally she was an enormous success.

Tickets to her annual self-funded recitals at the Ritz-Carlton went like hotcakes, and her Carnegie Hall debut at age 76 sold out weeks in advance. They came to laugh not just at the way she mangled Mozart and butchered Brahms but at her elaborate costumes and original choreography. You'd think Jenkins would've caught wise to the reason for her popularity. But like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, William Hung on "American Idol," and Rod Blagojevich at any given media appearance, she seems to have belonged to the class of comic characters who don't have the foggiest notion they're comic. Madame Flo's apparent cluelessness was so complete as to become a kind of triumph.

Playwright Stephen Temperley allows Jenkins's self-deluded self-confidence to crack in the course of Souvenir, his 2004 "fantasia" about the tone-deaf diva. But it happens just once, late in the show, and feels forced. The rest of the time she's one thing and one thing only: the dotty dowager who couldn't carry a tune if it came with handles. Consequently the show feels repetitive and way too long, and it leaves Neva Rae Powers, who plays the role in Steve Scott's low-key Northlight production, little to do other than sing off-key and perfect her Margaret Dumont impression—though she also manages to throw an endearing childishness into the mix. (Her bad singing is more full-bodied than the thin, shrill original, easily accessible online in all its painful, hilarious glory).

Since Temperley keeps Jenkins as flat as her singing, it falls to the play's only other character, her longtime vocal coach and accompanist, Cosme McMoon (a genially high-strung Mark Anders), to provide some depth. We see the lady through McMoon's recollections, which he shares from behind the piano at a Manhattan supper club in 1964, 20 years after Madame Flo's death—which incidentally followed fast on the heels of her Carnegie Hall appearance.

As a trained musician with two ears in working order, McMoon knows he has some explaining to do. "People used to say to me, 'Why does she do it?'" he says. "I always thought the better question was, 'Why did I?'" This is clearly the primary question for Temperley, too, who lets other avenues of inquiry—how much did she know? Why do some rich people mistake their wealth for talent? If a singer makes roomfuls of people deliriously happy, who's to say she's not an artist?—drop.

The answer Temperley proposes displays a degree of nuance and tenderness. Though appalled by Jenkins's singing, McMoon is nevertheless affected by and drawn to the purity of her delusion and wants to protect her if he can. Then, too, as a composer who writes songs nobody wants to sing, let alone buy, he sympathizes with her artistic ambitions and can use some of her money.

The trouble is that Temperley has McMoon announce his motives almost at the start, so, as with Jenkins's character development, there's nowhere to go. The duo's first scene together establishes a pattern that Temperley repeats again and again until he's filled up more than two hours: (a) Jenkins declares herself a divine soprano, (b) she sings, (c) McMoon listens in horror but goes along with her anyway, and (d) Jenkins has a smash hit performance. By the time we finally get to the overlong re-creation of the Carnegie Hall gig, there's little to hold our attention beyond Jenkins's inventively over-the-top gowns (designed by Theresa Ham).

Sweet and funny at first, Souvenir ends up hitting the same notes over and over—which, I guess, is still more than Jenkins ever managed in real life. On the other hand, she never bored an audience.

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